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The Altreian Enigma Released December 5, 2016

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My latest novel in The Rho Agenda series, The Altreian Enigma, just went live in Australia. It will be released on Audible.com and on Amazon.com just after midnight Pacific time here in the U.S. Enjoy.

Best, Richard

Rho Agenda Kindle Monthly Deal December 2, 2016

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In preparation for the Dec 6th release of THE ALTREIAN ENIGMA, all seven of my previous Rho Agenda novels are the December Kindle Monthly Deal $1.99 each on Amazon. Thank you to all my readers.

Richard

Happy Holidays From Richard Phillips November 25, 2016

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Happy Thanksgiving weekend and a very happy holiday season to you all from my wife, Carol, and from me.  We laughed a lot at the new 6 minute episode of the new comedy web series, Cubed, written by my daughter, Sienna Farall who also stars in it. Here’s the link to Cubed: Thanksgiving Goes Native. If you enjoy it, please like it on YouTube.

Best, Richard

Goodreads Giveaway of The Altreian Enigma November 8, 2016

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Enter for a chance to win a free copy of my soon to be released novel, The Altreian Enigma. Here is the link to the goodreads contest.

https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/210454-the-altreian-enigma

 

British Kindle Daily Deal November 8, 2016

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For all my British fans out there, my Rho Agenda Inception series, Once Dead, Dead Wrong, and Dead Shift, will each be on sale for 0.99GDP as the Kindle Daily Deal on November 14th.

Enjoy,

Richard

Lighter Side of Politics November 7, 2016

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The silly season is upon us but whoever you’re voting for, this youtube video is funny.

Richard Phillips SciFi Page October 10, 2016

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Like Richard Phillips SciFi my new facebook page where I post updates on my current projects, things that inspire my science fiction, short personal videos, and answers to common questions I get from fans and other writers. I also periodically post author giveaways, not just books and teasers but things like signed author bookplates (stickers) so that fans can turn their paperback books into author signed copies.

www.facebook.com/richardphillipsscifi September 29, 2016

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Hello fans. I have launched my new facebook SCIFI page. To get my latest posts as they happen, please like www.facebook.com/richardphillipsscifi

 

MacLeod Andrews Performs The Altreian Enigma September 8, 2016

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I’m happy to announce that MacLeod Andrews, who has been the voice for six of my seven Rho Agenda Novels, has signed on to perform the audio book for The Altreian Enigma. It is great to have him available for this release.

Meridian Ascent – 1st 9 Chapters September 7, 2016

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Hello fans. I am pleased to provide the first 9 chapters of The Meridian Ascent (Rough Draft) below.  Enjoy.

The Meridian Ascent

Book Three of The Rho Agenda Assimilation

(ROUGH DRAFT)

By Richard Phillips

Copyright © 2016 by Richard Phillips

Chapter 1 Friendship Cavern, North Korea 5 January

Alexandr Prokorov, wearing his dark gray suit and black oxfords, stared down from the observation platform at the enormous array of machinery that would soon power up the Friendship Gateway. He smiled, an expression that he rarely bothered to show. Not that he was calm. Far from it.  His nerves felt so alive that it seemed that sparks would fly from his fingertips at any moment. The seconds ticked off in slow motion, making each minute an hour.

In a way, the power surge that had thrown this gateway project behind schedule, all those months ago, had been fortuitous. It had allowed Dr. Lana Fitzpatrick to add a group of scientists from the United States to the team led by Dr. Guo. Together they had come up with some enhancements to the original design of the gateway that had been constructed in these manmade tunnels and cavernous rooms, far beneath the frozen North Korean countryside.

His thoughts shifted to the Smythe attack that had destroyed its sister gateway northeast of Frankfurt.  It had been a costly but necessary sacrifice, the reason that Prokorov and the UFNS leadership had made that project so visible to the public. And as he had intended, it had focused the Smythes’ and the rest of the world’s attention far away from this secret facility.

He turned to look at the inverted horseshoe within which the wormhole would form. This would make the second time that this device was triggered. Last week’s activation had been a brief one, just long enough to broadcast a message containing the gateway synchronization codes and the accompanying stasis field modulation codes. Together these would provide the Kasari the means to link their own gateway to this one, locking down the far end of the wormhole and allowing Prokorov’s delegation to welcome their would-be alien benefactors to Earth.

A warning sound blared, followed by Dr. Guo’s amplified voice.

“Sixty seconds until stasis field generator power ramp.”

The cavern lighting shifted from white to amber and Prokorov felt his hands grip the elevated platform’s steel railing. All of his planning was finally about to yield fruit. This world was tearing itself apart, despite the combined efforts of the United Federation of Nation States. It needed the guidance and wisdom that only an alien species that had worked through these primitive problems in its own distant past could provide. And this time, the Smythes would not be present to screw things up.

The ten-second countdown to stasis field generator power up blared from the loudspeaker. When it reached zero, a low hum arose and then the stasis field shimmered to life, covering the wormhole gateway opening with a semi-transparent blue glow. The color was not necessary, other than to provide the observers visible evidence of its presence and extent.

Unlike the original Stephenson Gateway, this only needed a single stasis field to protect those inside the cavern from the vacuum on the far side, once the gateway activated. It would also provide a barrier to the different atmospheric composition and pressure on the Kasari world once the two wormhole devices successfully linked. The stasis field modulation codes that this team had provided would enable the Kasari and their equipment to pass through while ensuring the waiting human scientists could continue to breathe.

“Ten seconds until wormhole activation,” Guo’s voice announced.

As the new countdown proceeded, Prokorov swallowed hard, but his mouth failed to deliver the required saliva. The presidents of the four UFNS member nations should be here, standing beside him. However, citing security concerns, all four had demurred. This confirmation that the federation’s leadership consisted of a group of cowards embarrassed Prokorov, but he would stand in for them. On his orders, no security or military personnel were allowed anywhere inside this warren of tunnels and vast underground bunkers. He would take no chances that this welcoming could be misconstrued as threatening to humanity’s benefactors.

Fifty feet below the steel grating upon which Alexandr Prokorov stood, the gateway activated. For a seemingly endless stretch of tense moments, its interior showed a moving starfield. Then, like an old television acquiring a distant signal, the image changed and clarified.

Prokorov did not notice the gasp that escaped his lips, as a four-armed alien stepped through the shimmering stasis field, accompanied by eleven hairy, black spider creatures. The spiders spread out, making their way rapidly past the scientists and engineers in a military maneuver that reminded Prokorov of Spetsnaz commandoes clearing a room. They moved among the equipment efficiently and fast, stationing three of their number at the tunnel opening, which formed the only entrance or exit to this gateway cavern.

Others scaled the steel scaffolding that surrounded the towering matter disrupter, which powered the stasis field generator and the gateway. As one of these paused to study him, the pungent scent of ammonia wrinkled Prokorov’s nose. Then the creature turned and climbed down the steel scaffolding, giving the Minister of Federation Security no further notice.

Apparently satisfied, the four-armed leader of the group turned back toward the gateway and signaled. Then, as hundreds of alien beings filed through the opening, escorted by hovering military vehicles, Prokorov shook himself from his paralysis and stepped into the elevator cage that would carry him down to the cavern floor.

It was time to officially welcome the Kasari Collective to Earth.

Chapter 2 Friendship Cavern, North Korea 15 January

Kasari Group Commander Drolaag looked around his rapidly emerging Earth-based headquarters in satisfaction. The human’s representative, Prokorov, had selected an exceptional location for the wormhole gateway. The vast underground chambers and connecting passages had been built some time ago, designed for transport and storage of large quantities of military equipment.  All of that had been cleared out before building the gateway.

Now it would serve as the Kasari base of operations and house the first of many assimilation centers. And Prokorov had volunteered to be the first to undergo the Kasari nanobot infusion that made him the second earthling member of the collective. The first had been a human female with the Earth-name of Jennifer Smythe, whom the collective had assimilated on the distant planet, Scion, but she had somehow extracted her consciousness from the hive mind.

That knowledge was worrisome, but it was not Drolaag’s assigned worry.

Turning his thoughts back to the ongoing work at this facility, the first priority had been securing this base of operations. The installation of powerful stasis field generators had been a significant step in that direction. Now, with the delivery of seven of the small, fast-attack spacecraft and a battery of disrupter cannons, his engineers could erect a Kasari gateway, replacing the smaller human-built gateway.

Another group of Kasari engineers was working at top speed to finish the assimilation center that would perform mass injections of the nanobot serum, capable of processing several thousand humans every Earth-day. Currently, only a few hundred of the leaders of the United Federation of Nation States had been treated.  But very soon, the assimilation of the Federation Security Service military forces would begin.  Prokorov had proven himself very efficient at setting it up while maintaining the illusion that the troop movements were part of the ongoing wartime operations against UFNS enemies.

As Drolaag watched the stream of Kasari soldiers and equipment making its way into the cavern, he savored the thought that he was already ahead of schedule. Assuming his group kept up the pace, he would soon have enough of the UFNS military assimilated to announce the UFNS – Kasari alliance to the entire planet.

To these primitive cultures, alliance was a more acceptable term than assimilation.

* * *

President Ted Benton stood at the centermost of the three Oval Office windows behind his desk, looking out at the leafless branches of the large tree just outside. Dark gray clouds hung low over the White House grounds. Almost, but not yet a freezing fog.

His gaze drifted down to the long, narrow table beneath it, focusing on the pictures of his wife, Cindy, and his two sons. The oldest, James, had just graduated from Harvard Law School. The last of the three framed photographs showed a slim Army Ranger in his dress uniform, the ribbons that graced the left side of his chest a testament to his bravery. That bravery had put Jeffrey into a lonely plot in Arlington Cemetery.

The endless damned wars against the Islamic Alliance and their surrogates had taken his son, along with hundreds of thousands of other young men and women. That and the ongoing rebellion by the Native People’s Alliance and the Safe Earth Resistance movement had led him, and the majority of the American people to the conclusion that the Earth needed outside help and guidance.

As he pondered the rejuvenating power of the nanobots that coursed through his veins he knew that welcoming the Kasari Collective to Earth had been the correct decision. He felt the cortical array that connected his brain to the hive mind release a stream of endorphins that soothed his mind, delivering gentle reassurance.

Once more, he lifted his eyes to the dreary sight outside the window, shifting his vision into the infrared that let him peer farther through the mist. Halfway around the world, the elite soldiers of the 75th Ranger Regiment were now receiving the same wondrous infusion that President Benton had benefited from last week.  Soon, the entire armed forces of the UFNS member nations would become the super soldiers they were meant to be.  Millions of them.

After that, the need for secrecy would come to an end. As thousands of additional assimilation centers came online around the globe, the acquiescent portion of the civilian populations of the United States, the New Soviet Union, Europe, and the East Asian People’s Alliance would also join the collective.

President Benton turned and sat down at his desk, a slow smile spreading across his patrician features. Then the real work of defeating the resistance would begin.

Chapter 3 Smythe Compound, New Zealand 16 January

Wearing black jeans and a maroon pullover top, her Glock in its familiar position on her right hip, Janet Alexandra Price left the underground command center and walked down a wide passage toward the central conference room where this morning’s status update would take place. It had been months since she’d fired the weapon at a living target, but she felt naked without it.

The quality of the air in this facility, a mile below the surface, was a testament to the filtered ventilation and humidity control systems. But the pace of ongoing construction sent a thrumming vibration through the titanium reinforced walls and imparted a faint metallic taste to the rear of her tongue. For the thousandth time, she felt the weight of all those tons of rock above pressing down on her shoulders. Perhaps this afternoon she would find time for a trip to the surface and a ten mile run beneath New Zealand’s warm January sun.

She turned the corner, stepped up to the door, and waited as it processed her biometric information. When it whisked open, she stepped inside, pleased to see that all the others were already present. Taking her seat at the head of the conference table, she looked around. Heather, Mark, and Robby sat along the right side of the table while Jamal Glover, Dr. Eileen Wu, and Dr. Denise Jennings occupied the chairs along the left side.

Technically, Janet did not need this meeting to update the project’s status. She could have received it from the facility’s neural network. But she liked to look into her people’s faces as they briefed her and hear the inflection in their voices. She had not asked for this leadership position, but now that she had it, she found that she enjoyed it.

“Let’s take it around the table,” Janet said. “Heather, you’re up.”

“As of this morning, we have replaced all of the twenty-three-hundred combat robots and drones lost in our assault on the German wormhole gateway. We have also replaced all of the microbots expended within the gateway cavern. The newest of our matter disrupter synthesizers will be operational in the next few days and will be directly tied into the upgraded molecular manufacturing apparatus.”

“A few days? When do you think the MDS will be fully operational?”

Janet saw Heather’s eyes fade to milky-white. No matter how many times she watched the savant go deep into her visions of probable futures, it still sent a chill up her spine.

Heather came out of it. “Tuesday.”

“Excellent. What about you, Mark?”

“The prototype for our new stasis field generator is giving us some problems.”

“How so?”

“According to Dad and Fred Smythe, it starts up correctly but develops a spiraling instability over the course of the next ten minutes. I’ve confirmed with Heather that there’s nothing wrong with the design, but its power-draw is placing too much stress on the materials within the walls of the resonator cavity. It looks like we won’t be able to fix it until the new MDS is operational next week. That will enable us to create a stronger version of the alloy.”

Janet frowned. “I want you to stop all further testing of the prototype. It’s not worth getting someone killed.”

“We’ve already shut it down. On the plus side, in addition to the new Earth Gate we installed with the Native People’s Alliance in Bolivia, the Rumanian arm of the Safe Earth Resistance is scheduled to take delivery of another Earth Gate three-and-a-half hours from now. We’ve already shown their people how to activate the construction robots that will assemble it and its cold-fusion power supply.”

Janet nodded and shifted her attention to her son.

Not yet ten, the athletic, brown-haired boy looked fifteen. Janet knew that part of that was due to the trauma he’d endured over the last eighteen months. Life and death struggle tended to age a person. But his alien augmentation amplified that effect.

“Eos and I have been helping Jamal, Eileen, and Denise with their cyber-warfare attacks. I’ll let them brief you on that, but it’s not going great.”

“He’s not wrong,” said Jamal Glover, seated on Janet’s left. “The world’s a freaking mess and getting worse by the day. Even though we’ve been able to hide our tracks from the Federation Security Service, the NSA, and the other UFNS intelligence agencies, that’s not helping our Safe Earth political allies. And we’re losing more Safe Earth Resistance cells every week.”

She studied the handsome black man in the 1920’s style suit, complete with shoe-covering black and white spats. Although he did not wear the black fedora with the white hatband indoors, whenever he went outside, it, along with his cocky grin, completed the look. This morning that smile was missing. Given their situation, Janet couldn’t blame him for that.

“That’s why we need those Earth Gates up and running.”

“Yes,” said Eileen, “but even if we start funneling combat robots and weapons through those, they can’t compete with the numbers the UFNS military can throw at our allies. I think their best bet is to disappear into society and lay low.”

“And wait for what?” Janet asked, unable to keep the frustration out of her voice. “For the UFNS to start building another gateway? Our odds don’t improve with time.”

“No, they don’t,” said Heather. “Not unless we can come up with a game-changing technology.”

“Hopefully one that won’t wipe out the world,” said Mark.

Janet saw Heather shrug and understood what she was feeling. A world war wasn’t pretty no matter how it stopped. This one did not look like the happy ending kind. Not for them and not for humanity.

Once again her thoughts turned to Jack. If he were here, he would say something about changing the rules. But Jack wasn’t here to do his crazy shit. So if she wanted to save Robby, her friends, and the very concept of human liberty, she was going to have to woman up and take this operation to the next level.

Janet rose to her feet and looked from one to the other, feeling the muscles in her

jaw tighten.

“I want that matter disrupter synthesizer finished. Then the new stasis field generator. After that, we’ll figure out how to change the game. Make it happen.”

Without waiting for a response, she turned and walked out of the room.

Chapter 4 Meridian Ascent, Deep Space 57 Earth Days After Re-Christening (MA Day 57)

 

The Meridian Ascent, the starship formerly known as the Rho Ship, emerged from a wormhole just outside the Scion System, smoothly transitioning into subspace to provide the required inertial damping to make the trip survivable. As the starship completed the maneuver, Jennifer Smythe released the stasis field that had cradled her, watching as Raul and Dgarra did the same. Wearing a form-fitting black and purple uniform, the female AI whom Raul had named VJ stood to his right, as he leaned back in his translucent blue captain’s chair.

Despite the starship’s smooth arrival, Jennifer had to concentrate to relieve the tension that had worked its way into her muscles. The decision to return to Scion had not been an easy one. She had argued that they should make the trip to Earth instead. But VJ’s breakthrough had decided the issue. So, whether Jennifer liked it or not, Scion was now their target.

In the eight weeks that the crew had spent in space, having fled a dozen light years from Scion, they had made several significant technological breakthroughs. The one that had improved the quality of their lives the most was VJ’s creation of a food synthesizer. This was a small matter-disrupter-synthesizer or MDS that could analyze the composition of any food placed within it and thereafter perfectly recreate it. Unfortunately, what lay in the ship’s stores didn’t quite qualify as gourmet cuisine.

It consisted of an assortment of frozen fish from one of Scion’s lakes and the few remaining military meals called MREs. On the positive side, these contained salt, pepper, tabasco sauce, some candy, and desserts, along with spaghetti in meat sauce, beans, and rice, and a few other entrees.

But the breakthrough that had brought them here had been VJ’s adaptation of the serum that had disabled the cortical array of Kasari nanobots, which had robbed Jennifer of her free will. VJ had created a software only version of the governing algorithm. The crew intended to use that computer virus to infect the primary Kasari router that linked the assimilated minds on Scion to the Kasari hive mind.

If all went well, the virus would restore the free will of the assimilated population on Scion and then spread through the wormhole gateway to infect other Kasari worlds. It would not change the minds of any who wanted to be a part of the collective, but it would give those who had been forced to assimilate a chance to resist. More importantly, by disrupting the cortical nanobot array within each of their heads, the virus would destroy the mental links to the Kasari hive mind.

As the Meridian Ascent transitioned out of subspace, Jennifer looked to her left, where Dgarra sat in the chair designated for the starship’s tactical officer. The seven-foot-tall warrior still carried the regal bearing of the general who had once been the Koranthian Empire’s second most powerful leader. The ridges of bone that formed his eyebrows extended up over the top of his dark-skinned, hairless head. She was tempted to reach out and stroke those twin crown-bones she had once found so intimidating.

Dgarra was no longer a Koranthian general. Like the rest of them, he had accepted his new position in the ship’s crew. Raul had designated Dgarra the tactical officer, VJ the science officer, and had made Jennifer his first officer.  Due to her empathic and telepathic augmentations, she also served as the ship’s communications officer.

“Performing long range worm-fiber scans of the outer Scion system,” said Dgarra in his deep voice.

It still felt a little strange hearing Dgarra speak English. The headset that VJ had created for him connected his mind to the starship’s neural net. It had taught him the language, just as that connection had taught the Koranthian language to Raul and VJ. Jennifer felt a small surge of pride at the thought that she had learned to speak and understand it the hard way.

“Any sign of Kasari presence?” asked Raul.

“None within sensor range. All of the Kasari ships must be staying closer to Scion.”

Jennifer felt herself nod. That was good news. It would have been nice to be able to scan normal space from within subspace. Instead, they had been forced to drop out of subspace outside the Scion system to make sure that the outer planets were clear.

“VJ,” said Raul. “plot a subspace course that will bring us out behind the outermost planet in the system.”

“Already done.”

That VJ could anticipate what Raul was about to order did not surprise Jennifer, given their shared connection to the ship’s neural net, but the assumptive nature of VJ’s action was a little creepy. So was the arrogant smile that she flashed Jennifer.

“Fine,” Raul said. “Make it happen.”

By now Jennifer was so used to the subspace transition that she barely noticed it. Unlike a wormhole transit, there was no need to wrap herself in a protective stasis cocoon. The subspace maneuver took just over a minute.

When the Meridian Ascent shifted back into normal space, the sensors pumped imagery of the gaseous blue giant and its twenty-one moons into her mind. From their current position, only a thin halo could be seen in the visible spectrum, but the infra-red showed the raging storms within the planet’s atmosphere.

Dgarra’s voice drew her attention to the worm-fiber viewers under his control.

“Long range sensors have identified thirteen Kasari fast attack spacecraft around Scion. Another twenty-seven are scattered throughout the system.”

“Wow,” said Raul. “They’ve tripled their presence since we left the planet.”

Jennifer tweaked the neural net, filling her mind with the same data and imagery that Dgarra was seeing. Apparently, the subspace capabilities that the Meridian Ascent had demonstrated when VJ and Raul had rescued Dgarra and Jennifer had alarmed the Kasari. It had been enough to make them deploy an unusually large contingent of military might for the assimilation of a single planet. The collective usually relied on the indigenous population, who had welcomed them onto the new world, to do most of the fighting.

But that wasn’t what constricted her throat. What additional security measures had the Kasari put in place on Scion?

“I recommend aborting this operation,” she said.

“Just because they have more ships circling the planet, doesn’t change anything,” said VJ. “We can still identify where the primary router is located, pop out of subspace at that location, and insert the virus before they know what we’re trying to do. We’ll be gone long before the fast attack ships can respond.”

“That’s assuming you can penetrate the encryption on that device,” said Jennifer.

“I guarantee it.”

Jennifer felt her temples throb.

“And what if you’re wrong?”

Dgarra turned his gaze on Jennifer.

“The improvements we’ve made to the stasis field generator should protect us long enough for VJ to complete her task. We’ll be back in subspace before the Kasari can target enough firepower to penetrate our shielding. This is our only chance to save my planet. And it might just save yours, as well.”

As much as she hated to argue with Dgarra, for whom she had developed a special bond, she couldn’t shake the feeling that they would be walking into a well-prepared trap.

“We can’t use the worm-fibers to scan Scion to find the router. The Kasari will detect them.”

“So what?” asked VJ. “They can’t tell where the scan originated because the worm-fibers are just tiny space-time folds.”

“So far,” said Jennifer, “we’ve positioned the worm-fiber viewers in empty space, looking for the fast-attack ships. If we were to scan inside one of those ships or in a heavily instrumented area on Scion, such as inside the gateway facility, the Kasari would be alerted to our presence. After that, you can bet they will be watching for signs of a subspace transition like the kind we did in ArvaiKheer.”

“That’s why you designed the micro-drones.”

Jennifer bit her lower lip. Damn, VJ was irritating. But she was also right.

Raul interrupted the argument.

“How many of the micro-drones do we currently have?”

“Nineteen,” Jennifer said. “Not nearly enough for a decent search.”

“And if we went into full-scale production?”

Jennifer paused to consider this. “It’s not just them. We would have to make the tiny subspace field generators and the supercapacitors to power them. If we devote the primary MDS and the molecular assembler to that task, we could produce six, possibly even seven per hour.”

“I could optimize your process,” said VJ, “increasing the efficiency by 53.7 percent.”

“Of course, you could,” said Jennifer, under her breath.

“I didn’t catch that,” said Raul.

“Never mind.”

Once again, Jennifer caught the hint of a smile on VJ’s softly glistening lips.

Dgarra spoke. “Captain, I recommend that we exit this star system and invest two weeks in manufacturing an enhanced micro-drone capability. It may give us the edge that we need to confront the increased Kasari military presence on and around Scion.”

Raul leaned back in his chair.

“Agreed. VJ take us out of here.”

“Specific location?”

“Somewhere we can’t be seen. Use your best judgment.”

As VJ initiated the subspace transition, Jennifer found herself scowling at Raul. Best judgment indeed.

* * *

Kasari Headquarters, Orthei, Scion

Kasari Group Commander Shalegha surveyed her operations center, which was situated in the tallest of the skyscrapers in the Eadric capital of Orthei. During the time since the humans had rescued General Dgarra and escaped Scion aboard the stolen Kasari world-ship, the Kasari had almost completed the assimilation of the planet’s winged Eadric race. Having signed an armistice treaty with the Koranthian emperor, Magtal, the Eadric and Kasari forces under Shalegha’s command had ceased all combat operations.

She had no doubt that the Koranthians would have to be dealt with at some later point in time. Since the subterranean warrior race had oddly structured brains that made assimilation into the Kasari hive mind impossible, that only left Shalegha one option. Extermination. But for now, it served her purpose to keep the peace.

The additional fast-attack ships she had requested were there to dissuade the humans from returning aboard the stolen world-ship. Or they would destroy the rogue ship if its crew was stupid enough to attempt it. The one disappointment was that Shalegha would be denied the opportunity to examine the major upgrades that the humans had made to that ship. They had somehow managed to give it the ability to enter and travel through subspace.

Although she could not be sure that the rogue crew had achieved faster than light travel in subspace, it was still a dangerous capability. Even more disturbing, the humans had engineered a mechanism that allowed them to survive as the world-ship passed through a wormhole of its own creation, something that the Kasari had never managed to accomplish.

Regardless, the rogue crew and their altered starship posed no significant threat to Scion’s assimilation. Within twenty-two Scion days, that task would be completed. Then Shalegha could reconsider the truce between the Kasari and the Koranthian Empire.

 

Chapter 5 The Parthian, Quol, Altreian System Twice Bound Era (TBE), Orbday 9

 

With his hands clasped behind his back, Jack Gregory, in Khal Teth’s black-uniformed body, stood at the transparent wall in the overlord’s chambers, an ivory blade strapped to each thigh. Far beyond that wall, the magnificent magenta orb of Altreia hung low on the horizon, its position in the sky a constant as seen from the Parthian, on this tidally-locked world. Higher in the twilight sky, bright stars bejeweled the Krell Nebula’s orange lace.

His psionic mind detected that the Altreian military operations center within the Parthian had just gone to high alert. On a distant planet, the Altreian research vessel, AQ37Z, had just detected the activation of a Kasari wormhole gateway and had sent the required notification to the Altreian command authority. That alert had automatically triggered the activation of the biological weapon that, upon arrival at its target, would kill all life on the planet.

Jack’s body went cold. Knowing as he did that this response was enshrined in Altreian military doctrine to such an extent that no overlord had ever issued a stand down order. Until now.

Sensing his commanding general’s excitement, Jack linked their two minds.

“General Zolat. Recall the bioweapon, right now.”

Despite the fact that this Dhaldric general was one of Jack’s twice bound, a sudden fury boiled within him. It was the downside of the voluntary bonding. All twice-bound retained their free will.

“Overlord! We have little time to get the weapon to its target before the Kasari establish an impregnable planetary defense against it. If I gave that order, the High Council would accuse me of treason.”

“The high council will do as I command.”

The shock he felt in the other’s mind surprised Jack.

“What of your twice-bound principles?” Zolat asked. “Will you now dictate your will to the people, just as the government that you replaced did? Or will you bring this matter before the high council so that it can be properly considered and decided upon?”

“I will not allow an entire world filled with intelligent beings to be obliterated.”

“Overlord, it is my duty to advise you when I think that a course of action will have negative consequences. The majority of our fleet is situated well beyond the influence of the twice-bound. Already there are rumblings of discontent among the Dhaldric commanders of the elevation in status of the Khyre race on Quol. This order will place additional stress upon the command structure within a significant portion of the fleet.”

Jack increased the power of his mental link with the general. Although Zolat did not like the command, his loyalty remained intact.

“My decision is final. Execute my order.”

“Yes, Overlord.”

General Zolat issued the order that was immediately translated into a subspace transmission. The recall would return the robotic weapon to its holding location, deep within the barren reaches of the Krell Nebula. It and its array of companions were far too dangerous to maintain anywhere near an inhabited star system.

Jack broke the mental link he had established and returned his gaze to the beautiful twilight sky. The knowledge that a new Kasari Gateway had opened on Earth and stabilized long enough to trigger the research vessel’s message turned his thoughts to Janet and Robby. Their only chance might require a direct attack on the invading Kasari by the Altreian fleet. But even though the Altreians had battled the spread of the Kasari Collective throughout the galaxy, it had always been through proxy wars. Both sides knew that direct conflict between their empires might escalate into mutually assured destruction.

But now that Jack had done what he had come here to do, there were certainly going to be consequences. A quote from the Israeli military leader, Yerucham Amitai, leaped into his mind.

“In the end, we may have to choose between actions that might pull down the Temple of Humanity itself, rather than surrender even a single member of the family to the executioners.”

If it came right down to it, Jack could live with that. Even on a galactic scale.

 

 

Chapter 6 Friendship Assimilation Center, North Korea 6 February

 

Alexandr Prokorov watched as long lines of soldiers snaked their way through the enormous assimilation cavern toward the row of auto-injector booths. To avoid squabbles between those who might be reluctant to undergo the Kasari treatment, they had merely been told that they would be receiving the latest upgrade to the nanites already in their systems. To lighten the mood, their commanders had also informed them that, in addition to healing faster than ever, this version of the nanite serum would enhance their experience of alcohol’s more pleasant side-effects.

As each soldier reached the injection point, a green light would indicate when they were to step into the cylindrical, soundproof booth. Once sealed inside, the injector arm would press itself against the person’s left shoulder, sending a puff of compressed air to spray the Kasari nanobot serum through the skin of the upper arm. Thirty seconds later, the exit door would slide open and a new member of the Kasari Collective would step out to take his place among the assimilated members of his unit in the adjacent rooms. There, for the first time, they would see some of the Kasari aliens that had come through the wormhole gate.

Prokorov turned toward General Hollande, the commander of the EU army division that was currently undergoing assimilation. Although Prokorov could have queried the hive mind for the answer to his question, he chose to speak it.

“General Hollande. How much of your division has been processed so far today?”

“Two-thirds. Approximately nine thousand soldiers.”

That was good. The assimilation center had increased its efficiency significantly during the last week. As Prokorov prepared to ask a follow-up question, a commotion broke out near the central injector booths.

From his vantage point at the edge of the cavern, he could see that several fights had broken out.

“What the hell is going on over there?” he asked.

But before the general could answer, Prokorov accessed the hive mind for a better perspective, rewinding the time so that he could see what started this disruption.

A large black soldier had been approaching one of the booths when he suddenly roared and attacked those around him, fighting his way back through the lines. It was as if a mesmerizing spell that had kept all these soldiers in thrall had broken. And as it did, dozens and then hundreds of other soldiers joined the big rebel in fighting their way toward the exit, ignoring the orders of the officers who struggled to reestablish control.

Several of the Kasari aliens entered the cavernous room to block the exit, a move that turned the squall into a cyclone. The unarmed soldiers tackled military police, stripping them of their weapons as gunfire crackled through the room.

Prokorov swore, then linked his mind with that of Kasari Group Commander Drolaag.

“Gas the assimilation chamber!”

His mental request came across as a command, but Drolaag took no offense. Overhead valves opened, releasing a heavier-than-air fog, long tendrils of which reached down toward the floor. And when it touched those who had not yet been infused with the Kasari nanobots, they dropped to the ground where they had stood.

Prokorov breathed in that fog, noting the cloying smell of rotten fruit, but showing no other symptoms. His Kasari nanobots processed this chemical cloud as easily as they processed air.

In seconds it was over. Large numbers of assimilated humans and Kasari aliens moved through the chamber, picking up the unconscious soldiers and carrying them to the injection booths. Much more slowly than before, the assimilation process began again as the workers dumped one after another into the cylinders, closed the door, and waited until a new member of the collective stepped out the far side.

Prokorov hissed in disgust and turned toward the exit. He had seen enough for one day. So much for the vaunted improvement in efficiency of the assimilation. He thanked the stars that this had not been live-streamed to the internet masses. That day would come, but only after he was ready to announce the existence of the Kasari gateway to the world.

 

 

Chapter 7 Smythe Compound, New Zealand 6 February

 

Jamal Glover leaned back in his zero-gravity couch and took off the headset that linked his mind to the supercomputer network within the underground world the Smythes had created. Technically, their robots had created this incredible network of tunnels and rooms that housed the world’s most sophisticated manufacturing operation. But the Smythes had designed and built the first generation of the robots and had directed them to produce Heather’s ever more advanced designs.

Cradled in the couch beside his, Dr. Eileen Wu also lifted the Alice band headset from her temples and turned to meet his gaze. The Chinese-American, former NSA computer scientist, known as Hex, was four years younger than Jamal and, as usual, he found the intelligence in her dark eyes mesmerizing.

“Learn anything?” she asked.

“Nothing useful. But it’s strange. The UFNS headquarters is not making the number of security mistakes I’m used to seeing. It’s almost like they had a big training program where people actually paid attention to their cyber-security instructors.”

“Interesting. I’ve noticed the same thing at the Pentagon and at Special Operations Command. And there have been some odd troop movements as well.”

This caught Jamal’s attention. “How so?”

“On the surface, the movement orders look ordinary. The manifests are what you would expect to see for troops and equipment being moved into the conflict areas bordering the countries of the Islamic Alliance. The weaponry shows up on schedule, but I’ve observed some unusual troop delays. Usually just a few days, but I can’t find any record that any stopover occurred.”

“Are we talking about troop movements by air?”

“And by sea.”

“No communications with headquarters?” Jamal asked.

“It’s as if they passed through the Bermuda Triangle.”

“Have you checked satellite imagery?”

Eileen paused. “I thought I’d leave that to you.”

As interesting as Jamal found this conversation, the rumble from his stomach distracted him.

“Tell you what,” he said. “You buy me dinner and I’ll apply my big brain to the stuff you can’t figure out.”

He watched her dark eyes crinkle at the corners.

“Hilarious.”

Climbing to his feet, Jamal offered her his arm, as if he was her date for the evening.

“So?” he asked.

Eileen rose, ignoring his extended elbow, to lead the way out through the doorway.

“We better get you some food,” said Eileen. “If you get any more light headed, you’ll pass out on me.”

As he followed her into the long hallway that led toward the cafeteria, Jamal grinned. For the first time today, he’d almost succeeded in making her smile.

 

* * *

 

Freddy Hagerman stepped out of the meeting between President Benton and the senior leadership of the Senate, bothered by something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Outside the white house, Al Monroe, a blond ex-Ranger, and Elena Chavez, a severe looking former FBI agent, escorted him to his driverless Cadillac sedan. With his breath puffing out in a white mist, Freddy climbed into the back seat. The other two slid into the front of the silver car.

Even after all this time, Freddy still found the fact that there was no such thing as a driver’s seat somewhat disconcerting. But it enabled his bodyguards to stay focused on the job of keeping him alive. Not such an easy task these days. Probably the only thing keeping him that way was that he was the political leader of the peaceful Safe Earth movement. As such, he had the popular backing of forty-seven percent of the US population. Unfortunately, fifty-three percent of those residing in the fifty-nine states supported President Benton’s globalist policies.

Freddy harrumphed loud enough to cause Elena to glance back at him. But she had grown used to his periodic outbursts and her gaze did not linger.

Globalist hell.  President Benton and the UFNS were determined to place humanity’s independence in the hands of an alien race. Freddy thanked God every morning that the Smythe’s had destroyed the latest ill-conceived attempt to make that a reality, despite the devastation they had left in their wake, just northeast of Frankfurt.

So what was it about the president’s demeanor that troubled him so?

Freddy spoke the words that put the car in motion, taking him back to the Hart Senate Office Building. When he reached his seventh-floor office, told his executive assistant that he did not want to be disturbed, and settled into his comfortable leather chair, the answer to that question still eluded him.

As he was about to turn his attention to next week’s schedule, a new thought wormed its way out of his subconscious. President Benton’s mannerisms had not changed. But now his mental sharpness and ability to recall intricate details of complex discussions reminded Freddy of Heather and Mark Smythe’s eidetic memories.

That was it. Throughout this morning’s meeting, the group of senior senators had thrown questions at the president on a broad spectrum of topics. Although Freddy had not agreed with Benton on many items, his answers had been remarkably crisp and clear. Now that Freddy thought back on it, a very slight pause had preceded many of the president’s answers, almost as if the man were placing a mental query to an external source, rather than searching his own memories for the answers.

Freddy shook his head to clear it. That was ridiculous. This line of thinking was getting him nowhere.

He turned his attention to next week’s Safe Earth fundraiser in Richmond. President Benton’s oddities did not merit further consideration.

 

 

Chapter 8 Meridian Ascent, Scion Space MA Day 71

 

VJ brought the Meridian Ascent out of subspace a hundred million miles outside the outermost of the Scion System’s planets. Immediately she began the maneuver, adjusting the starship’s velocity vector to match that of their initial target on Scion.

“Ready to release first insertion package,” she said.

“Commence insertion sequence,” said Raul.

“Aye captain,” said VJ, noting with satisfaction the hint of annoyance her archaic verbiage brought to Jennifer’s face.

Smiling, VJ created a stasis field bubble around the interior of the cargo hatch and then opened it without extending the ramp. That modification of their ship had been one that Raul had intended to make for some time. But only in the last several days had they gotten around to it.  That done, she wrapped the first group of six, gnat-sized micro-drones in another stasis bubble and moved it out through the field that kept the interior of the amidships bay from depressurizing.

When the micro-drone was fifty yards off the starboard, VJ made a final adjustment to fine-tune the trajectory. Then she released the drones and issued the subspace signal that initiated the pre-programmed journey through subspace that would bring them out a thousand feet above the Eadric capital city of Orthei. Due to their tiny size, they would be invisible to the sensors designed to detect much larger targets.

Moreover, the drones were each equipped with a one-time use subspace field generator with just enough power to deliver them to their target. And when the micro-drones emerged from subspace, they would produce such a small displacement of the surrounding atmosphere that it would only produce a sound no louder than that of a thumbtack hitting a stone floor.

The drones disappeared and VJ adjusted the ship’s trajectory to match the next target as she prepared to deliver the next package. Then the real fun would begin.

 

* * *

 

Raul had watched VJ smile as her subtle dig at Jennifer produced her desired result. At some point he would have to do something about that, assuming that he could get VJ to comply with his wishes. But since it was a minor distraction to the otherwise professional manner in which his crew performed, it would wait.

He let the neural net amplify the imagery of the first six micro-drones outside his ship. One second the tiny things were there and the next, they were gone. The tiny flying sensors did not have enough power to stay in subspace for very long. They did not need to. A subspace bubble would form around each micro-drone that would briefly accelerate it toward the target. That bubble would last just long enough to get it there before dying.

Each micro-drone would emerge with the exact normal space momentum vector it had before entering subspace, one that matched its target on Scion.

When the neural net delivered the first six subspace video streams into his mind, Raul gasped. As he had previously observed using the worm fiber viewers, Orthei was wondrously beautiful. The transparent walls of the building reached hundreds of feet into the sky. Each apartment or office complex had external balconies upon which the Eadric could land or launch themselves to sail through the city. Considerable open space between buildings provided pedestrian … make that wingestrian byway.

There were, of course, aerial thoroughfares for high-speed aircars, but these were confined to routes that, from these six vantage points, reminded Raul of public transit routes. That the angelic winged Eadric people would sacrifice their love of beauty to become a part of the Kasari Collective mystified the hell out of him.

The drones separated, dividing the city below into sextants, each heading toward its own search sector. The ones that held Raul’s primary interest were the drones targeted for the Kasari assimilation center. This was the most likely location for the planetary master router that connected the assimilated minds on this planet to the hive mind on other Kasari worlds.

As would be expected, given their lack of subspace technology, the communications between the Kasari cortical arrays was limited by the speed of light. The only thing that made the communication among the collective possible was the fact that wormhole gateways eliminated the distance between the stars.  And once the Kasari had assimilated a planet, they erected wormhole gateways on any other habitable worlds within that system to remove the communications lag between worlds.

Video feeds from two more sets of micro-drones blossomed in his mind and he assigned these to Jennifer and Dgarra respectively, leaving VJ to focus on making sure that the Meridian Ascent remained undiscovered by any of the Kasari attack ships. Discovery this far outside the Scion System was unlikely, but Raul did not want to take a chance and rely on that assumption.

No. He would do this the right way, the way that would keep his ship and his crew safe. Even if it cost them some extra time.

 

* * *

 

Six hours after they had deployed the last of the drones within Orthei, the sound of VJ’s voice brought Jennifer’s head around.

“Found it.”

But it was the meaning behind those words that elevated Jennifer’s heart rate.

“Is the hive-mind router in the wormhole gateway facility?” Raul asked.

“No,” said VJ, “but it’s nearby. One of the drones pinned its location to a large rack of equipment inside a communications and computing hub, just north of the Orthei assimilation facility.”

Jennifer felt Dgarra’s mind access the tactical map.

“That is bad. There is not enough room inside the building to accommodate this ship.”

“What’s the closest spot where we can land?” asked Raul.

“I can bring us out of subspace in the park a hundred yards north of the communications hub,” said VJ, “but we’re going to knock down some trees and attract a lot of attention.”

Jennifer pulled up the drone footage of the central router. As she examined the video and encrypted Kasari traffic emanating from the device, she saw that VJ was probably correct about this being the primary router that connected the high volume of mental traffic to and from a sister router on the far side of the Kasari wormhole gateway. An analysis of the data from the two drones inside the gateway facility confirmed this, both of which showed the same wireless communications stream passing in and out through the gateway.

Unfortunately, the drones had not been able to pin down the exact location of the central router within the conglomeration of computing systems. That meant that they could not perform a remote subspace hack of the router. It meant that for VJ to insert her virus, they would have to find it and manually attach the small SRT device that would provide a subspace link to the ship’s neural net.

VJ frowned. “I won’t be able to project myself to the router from that distance.”

“I’ll go in,” said Jennifer. “Computer expertise is one of my Altreian augmentations. My SRT headset will keep my mind connected to our neural net.”

“I will accompany you,” said Dgarra.

Jennifer felt gratitude flood her mind.

“Thanks. I’ll need you covering my back while I search for the hive’s central router.”

“Even with our new personal stasis field generators,” said Dgarra, “we are going to need a distraction to make the run to that computer center.”

Raul nodded. “I’m sure VJ can take care of that.”

“Count on it,” she said.

The smile that lit VJ’s face gave it a soft glow. Even Jennifer had to admit that she was beautiful.

“Gear up,” said Raul. “Things are about to get unpleasant.”

 

* * *

 

Although Dgarra was no longer a general fighting for the Koranthian Empire, the feel of the nano-engineered war-blade strapped to the side of his stasis-shield backpack sent a shiver of anticipation up his spine. The tingle spread up his thick neck and into the twin crown bones that ridged the top of his head. That black blade would soon taste the blood of his Kasari enemies.

He glanced over at Jennifer. The fact that she chose to wear the colors of house Dgarra was the greatest compliment she could have given him. The way her black and purple uniform followed the slender curves of her body brought forth a familiar longing. Compared to the female Koranthian warriors he had known, she looked so frail. But long experience fighting alongside her had shown him that her fragile appearance was deceptive.

Jennifer was quick and strong, as deadly in battle as any Koranthian. And despite the protectiveness that the sight of her generated within him, this Earth woman could take care of herself. But today she would need his protection if she was to focus on the difficult tasks of penetrating the Kasari computer center, bypassing the primary router’s security system, and uploading VJ’s free will virus.

Dgarra watched as she shrugged into the backpack that held her stasis shield, its supercapacitor power supply, and her emergency air supply. The thing weighed considerably more than she did, but she gave no sign that its bulk bothered her.

She drew her own war-blade, examined it, and then returned it to its sheath. As she turned her attention to the pulsed laser at her side, Dgarra completed his own combat weapons check. That complete, he turned his back to her and allowed Jennifer to double check the stasis shield strapped to his back, a service that he repeated for her.

“We are ready,” he said, feeling the head-rush that accompanied impending combat.

Her flashing brown eyes met his.

“Let’s do this.”

Then, as two stasis cradles draped their standing bodies, the Meridian Ascent warped into subspace.

 

* * *

 

Inside the wormhole gateway facility, Kasari Group Commander Shalegha watched the mental imagery from the nearby assimilation center. The last of a thousand Eadric worked their way through the assimilation booths, the final large rebel group to be forcibly processed into the collective. There were still a few hidden Eadric rebels, but for all practical purposes, today would complete the assimilation of the most prominent species on Scion.

Reaching down with her lower two hands to grasp the arms of her command chair, she rose to her feet and stretched her muscular body to its full height. Suddenly, the rumble of thunder rattled the building. Not thunder. That had been a supersonic pressure wave.

For several long moments, she struggled to understand the imagery that the hive mind fed through her cortical nanobot array. A blast in one of the nearby nature open spaces that the Eadric loved had leveled trees and damaged the facades of the surrounding skyscrapers, killing dozens of Eadric who had been near the source of the overpressure blast.

There was no sign of what had caused all the damage, but Shalegha had no difficulty figuring it out. The rogue starship had emerged from subspace at the center of the devastation and had cloaked itself. That probably meant that an attack on the wormhole gate was imminent.

Shalegha initiated the order that recalled the nearest of the Kasari fast-attack ships, refining her instructions to limit the use of weaponry to high-energy beam weapons only. The use of larger disrupter or vortex weaponry in this highly confined area would destroy the gateway, the assimilation center, the central computing complex, and the Kasari group headquarters on Scion. This had the highest probability of being the rogue crew’s suicidal plan.

That done, she initiated an order to the local Kasari rapid reaction force. They would deploy in defense of these four critical facilities, while they awaited the arrival of the off-world reinforcements. But above all else, these forces would refrain from damaging the protected assets with their fires, even if that meant suffering an increased number of combat casualties.

That done, Shalegha settled back into her command chair and brought up a complete set of tactical overlays. From the pattern of the damage done by the supersonic overpressure wave, it computed the outline of the cloaked ship. This was almost immediately confirmed by the laser pulses from the first of the rapid reaction force to arrive. The beams scattered from the ship’s stasis shielding in a spectacular visual array.

Very soon now, she would have the two things that she most wanted. The smoking hulk of the stolen Kasari world-ship and the dead bodies of its rogue crew. With that pleasant thought, Shalegha released a flow of endorphins that took her into a state of alert, but delightful numbness.

It was just one more thing that made an immortal life worth living. 

Chapter 9 Orthei, Scion MA Day 71

 

The Meridian Ascent emerged from subspace, coming to rest on the ground in the targeted park in Orthei with a shudder. Jennifer had to admit that VJ’s pilotage was steadily improving. Considering that VJ was a young artificially-intelligent being, this should not have been surprising. But Jennifer knew that VJ did not want to be an artificial intelligence. Virtual Jennifer wanted to be a real woman, a goal that was even beyond her rapidly improving capabilities.

Turning her thoughts back to the task at hand, Jennifer drew her war-blade and waited alongside Dgarra for the ship’s ramp to open. Although it would seem that arming herself with laser pistol would have made more sense than the double edged sword, the interior of the communications center consisted of tightly spaced computer racks separated by narrow access ways. Destroying that equipment with laser blasts defeated their entire purpose for being here.

The equipment in her backpack could operate in one of three modes. It could provide a small stasis field bubble around her entire body or just around her head. In either of these cases, it would turn on her emergency air supply.

The remaining method of operation involved the stasis field generator creating a virtual shield projected outward from her left forearm, allowing her to use her weapons while maintaining a reasonable capability to deflect incoming attacks. She did not need to access the neural net or look at Dgarra to know that he had also drawn his war-blade. Her telepathic link to the Koranthian supplied that information and more.

With a hiss of equalizing air pressure, the ramp lowered and the two of them leaped to the ground. Outside the starship, the once beautiful Eadric park was a mess, the trees and plants knocked down or stripped of their foliage. VJ had landed the Meridian Ascent with its bow facing south, toward the targeted communications hub. Jennifer and Dgarra sprinted in that direction.

Thirty yards above them and off to either side, the projected cloaking and stasis shield shimmered like a holographic curtain. It would hide hers and Dgarra’s movements until they were almost to the building.  But those last few yards, they would be visible to anyone who happened to be watching. They would have to cross that open space fast.

Since they could not risk blasting open the door with disrupter weapons for fear of damaging the communications gear and computing systems inside the building, they would have to rely on VJ to slice it open with a projected arm of the ship’s stasis field. That capability, along with the increased strength of the shielding, were two of the upgrades they had installed during the last two weeks in deep space.

When she burst into the open, she heard the sizzle of beam weaponry impinging on their starship’s shielding. Someone high up and to her right attempted to target the two of them, but failed to adjust their aim before they darted through the opening where VJ had just carved an entryway.

Without pausing, she ducked to her left, leaving the central passage, and moving out of the line of sight of a half-dozen Eadric communications engineers. Another ten paces along, she turned right, her shoulders brushing the tightly bundled electronics that filled the metal racks. Although she knew that Dgarra would have to take a wider avenue, he knew precisely where she was going. The ship’s neural net dumped the same maps through their SRT headsets and into their minds.

As she approached the central communications array, Jennifer ducked beneath a laser pulse that sprayed molten metal from the equipment behind her. Her spinning war-blade splattered the computing systems that rose on either side of her with red and sent the four-armed Kasari soldier’s thick head ricocheting down the aisle. From somewhere to her right, Eadric screams rose and then died, the dread moans echoing off the ten-foot-high ceiling to whine through the electronics like fleeing spirits.

She rounded another tight corner and halted, as a wave of dread drained away her adrenaline fueled battle lust. The tightly packed computing systems in this cluster within which the primary router was housed numbered in the hundreds. Even with her enhanced speed and other Altreian augmentations, it would take her a significant part of an hour to examine them all.

Assuming a statistically average amount of good fortune, it would take twenty minutes to find what she was searching for. They had planned to fight their way inside as Raul, VJ, and the Meridian Ascent made themselves the focus of the Kasari counterattack. VJ had estimated that the ship’s enhanced shielding could hold up for ten minutes under the firepower the Kasari would call in against it.

Damn it, Jennifer Smythe. Stop thinking and get your ass in gear.

She gritted her teeth. Then another Jack Gregory memory replayed itself in her brain. He’d stood before them in his Bolivian hacienda, his curly brown hair framing a face with eyes that burned with unnatural brightness and uttered the line that she remembered.

“This world will try to beat you down. Only laughter can counteract that. Laughter is ammunition. Resupply often.”

How long had it been since she had laughed out loud? Although this moment was in no way right for it, she threw back her head and released all of her frustration in gut-deep laughter. And as the sound drowned out all others, a renewed sense of confidence filled her.

Screw it. Whatever it took, she would get this job done.

 

* * *

 

Half a room away, a blood soaked Dgarra looked up from the bodies that lay strewn around him. And as he listened, the joyous sound that echoed through this crowded space pulled a smile to his lips. Here was a warrior soul-mate for whom he would willingly sacrifice his life.

Of course, as he had once heard Jennifer say, that was not exactly Plan A.

 

* * *

 

As VJ watched Jennifer and Dgarra approach the spot where they would have to sprint from beneath the protective stasis and cloaking fields, VJ projected her virtual body outside the Meridian Ascent. She coalesced at the northern edge of the stasis field, dressed in the sheer black and purple uniform that Raul liked and Jennifer hated. With her short blond hair spiked up like leaping flames, she stepped beyond the cloaking field. The time for her distraction had come.

Raising her right hand toward the curved building that housed the wormhole gateway. Her mind manipulated the stasis field, focusing its power along a narrow line that she projected outward in a glittering crystalline blade that extended a hundred yards in front of her. Wielding it as an artist used a fine-lined pencil, just as she’d done to carve an entryway into the communications hub, she sliced through the gateway facility’s outer wall to reveal the inner support struts.

Immediately, every weapon in the area focused their beams and projectiles on her, bathing her form in a fireball that crawled around the shielding that formed her body. VJ analyzed the power drain that her projection and these attacks placed on the ship’s primary stasis field generator. Taking another five steps forward, she stopped, made another slice at the building, and smiled.

She had their full attention.

 

* * *

 

Shalegha leaped up from her command chair, screaming her orders to her subordinate commanders as she echoed them to all weapon stations with line of sight to this new target.

“Focus all fires on the human female. I want her dead.”

The earthling was projecting some kind of force-field weapon, cutting through the outer walls of the wormhole transport center. And if they did not stop her soon, she might succeed in damaging or destroying the gateway itself.

Her cortical nanobot array provided her with an important update. The closest of the robotic fast-attack ships would arrive on station, directly over the city, within the next few moments, bringing its weaponry to bear on the woman and the stolen world-ship. Then Shalegha would find out just how long these rogues could survive the battering it would deliver.

 

* * *

 

The sensors delivered the bad news to Raul and he issued a mental command to VJ

“Get back in the ship. We’ve got incoming trouble.”

When VJ materialized beside him, Raul jumped. Because she looked so real, he sometimes forgot that her body was merely the manipulation of the stasis field that gave physical form to a very impressive hologram.

“I see it,” said VJ. “Dropping cloak to divert all power to stasis shielding.”

Just then, the neural net pumped the image of one of the small Kasari attack ships, sliding into position, two thousand feet above them.

“They’ve locked weapons,” he said.

When the particle cannons and laser weapons opened up, the Meridian Ascent made no sound. It did not rock or sway. But through the SRT crystals embedded in his brain, Raul felt the stasis shield generator draw more power from the primary matter disrupter, an electric current that ran up his spine to stand his hair on end.

“How long can we withstand this?” he asked.

“Four minutes, thirteen seconds,” said VJ.

“Jennifer, status?”

“I haven’t found the router yet,” Jennifer’s calm voice whispered in his mind. “One more rack to go through.”

Raul started to tell her to hurry, but resisted the impulse. She was well aware of the situational urgency.

“Dgarra, how are you holding up in there?”

“I have dealt with the Kasari and Eadric staff inside this room. The show you’re putting on out there seems to be keeping everyone else occupied.”

“Not for much longer,” said Raul. “VJ, the attack ship is just sitting up there. Can we return fire?”

“If we drop the shielding long enough to engage, it will carve us into pieces.”

Raul hissed a curse.

“Damn it. I need a viable option. Give me something.”

VJ paused and he felt her draw more heavily on the neural network’s processing power. Crap. What the hell was she doing?

“There is a possibility, but it could end up killing us all.”

“Tell me.”

“I can launch one of our subspace torpedoes at it.”

His disappointment at this suggestion cramped his stomach.

“How? We can’t maneuver this ship to create the right momentum vector before releasing it into subspace.”

“True,” said VJ, “but if I divert part of the stasis shielding, I can use that to sling the torpedo at the enemy ship. I’ll have to create a small hole in our outer shielding for just a moment to release it. Then it will shift into subspace, popping out again after just enough time to allow its original velocity vector to have intersected with its target. If everything goes perfect, it will transition back out of subspace right beside the attack craft. Boom.”

“I don’t want the explosion to damage this city,” said Raul. “We need the gateway and the communications center to remain fully operational.”

“I’ve already made those adjustments to the torpedo payload. The attack ship’s shielding will focus all the energy inward before it fails. But I can’t determine where it will crash.”

“How much damage will we take while the hole in our shielding is open?”

“Inconclusive. Like I said, our chances for success aren’t encouraging.”

Raul tried to swallow but only managed to tighten his throat.

“Upload the calculations to the torpedo and move it into launch position just outside the ship.”

As he watched VJ manipulate the stasis field to move the torpedo, Raul became increasingly worried about the increased power demands being placed on the ship’s primary matter disrupter. If the ship’s instruments would have had a gauge with a red line, he was quite sure that the needle would be pegged on the wrong side of it.

“Torpedo ready,” VJ said. “I would advise closing the hatch before releasing it.”

“Do it.”

When he felt the ramp withdrawn and the hatch close, he gave the order that might end them all.

“Fire.”

 

* * *

 

VJ knew that she did not have real human emotions. She had simulated emotional states. It was something she was constantly working to improve, along with the rest of the source code that made her what she was. If she would have had real emotions, she was certain that she would have been what Raul described as scared shitless.

But she dutifully used the stasis field to launch the subspace torpedo toward the attack craft that hovered almost two miles above them, creating a hole in the outer shielding for just long enough to let the torpedo exit. It was too bad that she could not accelerate the torpedo to the required velocity within the distance between the ship and its outer shielding. If that had been possible, then there would have been no need to create the hole. The torpedo could have just shifted into subspace after achieving the required velocity.

Unfortunately, that was not an option. So she opened the hole and used the extra energy to slingshot the torpedo through. Even as she observed the torpedo shift into subspace, the energy of the particle and laser beams heated the air inside the Meridian Ascent’s stasis shielding to a white-hot plasma. The warnings that cascaded through the ship’s neural net showed a hull breach in the central bay in the vicinity of the outer hatch even as she resealed the torpedo hole in the outer shielding.

Shifting her focus, VJ draped the egg sized breach in the ship’s hull with another stasis field. Then the Meridian Ascent’s sensors showed the sky ten thousand feet above them flash white.

 

* * *

 

Finally!

Jennifer had resisted the physical urge to yell in favor of its mental equivalent as the neural net delivered confirmation that she had indeed found the router for which she had been so desperately searching. Without hesitation, she attached the tiny SRT module to the back of the device, and then issued her mental warning to Dgarra.

“I’m done. Let’s get back to the ship and get the hell out of here.”

When she met him at the opening that VJ had carved into the building, she paused just long enough to switch her stasis field backpacks into full-body-shield mode, to match that of Dgarra. Together, they sprinted across the open space toward the Meridian Ascent. A glance upward revealed a long smoke-trail that traced the way from overhead to a huge plume that arose on the western side of the city of Orthei.

The laser that swept across her body brought her focus back to the task at hand. Although her personal stasis field generator had deflected the beam, it did not have sufficient power to perform the same trick another time. But since VJ had opened a portal in the ship’s stasis shielding to allow them to pass through, she no longer needed the backpack’s protection.

She leaped onto the descending ramp and sprinted upward, with Dgarra only a step behind. Entering the ship, she turned right into the hallway that led to the command bay, slipping the backpack and the sheathed war-blade from her shoulders as she stepped inside.

“Progress?” she asked.

She settled into her stasis couch as Raul spun his to face her.

“Stasis shielding is down to seventeen percent. We’ve taken some hull damage but VJ has acquired a subspace lock on the Kasari router.”

“How long until she can upload the free will virus?”

“Bypassing security protocols now,” said VJ.  “Upload will commence in thirteen seconds.”

“How long until the upload is complete and virus dissemination gets underway?” Jennifer asked.

“Estimating thirty-seven seconds,” said VJ. “After that, dissemination to all linked cortical arrays within the brains of the assimilated on Scion should take less than five minutes.”

“And how long until it spreads through the wormhole gateway to infect the router on the linked Kasari staging planet?”

“I won’t know until I can analyze the security on that communication system.  That cyberattack can’t begin until I have finished with this router.”

Dgarra’s deep voice interrupted the conversation. “Long range sensors have detected three more attack ships inbound.”

“How long until they get here?” asked Raul.

“Seven minutes.”

Jennifer felt her knuckles crack and forced herself to relax.

“VJ,” said Raul. “We need to be gone before that ship gets here.”

“Well aware.”

Although Jennifer could detect no variance in VJ’s tone, the terse nature of the AI’s words told her that VJ was feeling the same stress that gripped the rest of the crew. That knowledge did nothing to ease Jennifer’s mind.

 

* * *

 

Kasari Group Commander Shalegha had watched the crash of her attack ship in consternation. How had the rogue ship’s weapon penetrated its shielding?

She replayed the scene in her mind, rewinding the video feed to the moment just prior to the weapon launch. The stolen world ship sat unmoving in the destroyed park, having just pushed a torpedo out through its open hatch. The scenario unfolded in ultra-slow motion. The weapon accelerated upward, passing out through a small hole in the stasis shield that draped the enemy craft and then winked out of existence.

Moments later, the sensor data feed from the Kasari attack ship showed the torpedo reappear inside that ship’s protective shielding and detonate. The attack craft’s own shielding had contained and focused the explosive force on the hull, splitting the ship into three large chunks. The smoking pieces and other smoldering shards had rained down on the west side of Orthei, knocking down skyscrapers and setting that part of the city ablaze.

Again she replayed the attack and the hive mind confirmed the dread certainty that had been growing within hers. The humans had used an Altreian subspace weapon. Because of such weapons inability to track normal space targets while in subspace, they were ineffective in combat against the maneuverable Kasari attack ships. But because Shalegha had not known that the humans had such a weapon, her attack ship had not been maneuvering.

Shalegha clenched her upper two fists as she watched the telemetry from the closest of the three inbound attack ships. Uploading her commands to the formation, a low snarl escaped her lips. She would not make the same mistake again.

When her link to the hive mind died, it startled her so badly that she stumbled and almost fell. The loss of sensory data left her feeling blind and crippled. The startled cries that filled her combat operations center told her worse news. This loss of link was not isolated to her.

Ignoring the panic of her Kasari and Eadric staff, Shalegha sprinted to the air-car that awaited her use on its pad on the south side of the tower. At her approach, the car’s sensors opened the side panel to allow her entry. Sliding into the seat, her hands flashed across the controls, launching the car outward and down off the high platform. For the first time she found herself thankful for the archaic manual controls present in these Eadric vehicles. Given her current inability to access the hive mind, if this had been a Kasari vehicle, its mind interface would have left her stranded.

Shalegha now understood that she had been wrong about the target of the humans and their Koranthian stooge. They had not aimed for the wormhole gateway. Instead, they had somehow inserted a software worm into the communications hub that connected the cortical arrays within the brains of the assimilated masses to the hive mind. And if she did not act immediately, that infection could spread through the gateway to the Kasari staging world and beyond. It was beyond the bounds of irony that such a backward species as the humans could threaten the very existence of the collective.

Glancing down, Shalegha was shocked to see the tremor that had crept into her hands as she brought the air-car in for a hard landing in front of the entrance to the wormhole gateway. Just beyond the broad doorway, chaos reigned. As pulsed laser fire rippled through the crowd, winged Eadric took to the air in a frenzied attempt to escape the madness.

Shalegha climbed out of the vehicle and ran through the entrance, hurling aside anyone who impeded her path toward the gateway. Already, armed military suppression squads had come through from the staging world to reestablish order, but she could see at a glance that the infection was propagating to these new arrivals.

Noting her insignia of rank, they stepped aside as she ran toward the gateway, yelling orders to keep everyone back. Then, with a final mighty leap she sailed through the opening, feeling the nanobots within her blood adjust to the methane atmosphere on the far side. Without waiting for the response of a higher ranking officer, Shalegha drew her disrupter pistol and fired, directly into the cables that routed power to the gateway.

As the wormhole winked out of existence, she felt herself thrown to the ground by the clawed hands of an eight-legged, Graath commando.

 

* * *

 

“VJ. We’re out of time,” Raul yelled, his heart hammering his chest. “Get us out of here!”

Since she had access to the same sensors Raul was seeing, he wasn’t surprised that she didn’t argue. But as VJ diverted power to the subspace field generator, the lead attack ship opened fire.

“Shield power at ten percent and falling,” Dgarra said.

“VJ?”

“The primary matter disrupter synthesizer is at maximum.  If I pull more it could blow.”

“Do it!”

It almost seemed that VJ was feeling the starship’s pain as she pulled the extra energy that the subspace generator required from the pegged matter disrupter. But with the transition into subspace, the drain on their shields came to an abrupt end. Unfortunately, the output from the primary MDS also dropped off precipitously.

“Primary power failing,” VJ said.

“Drop the shields.”

“Done. But we’re still drawing on the super-capacitors. At this rate of consumption, I won’t be able to maintain the subspace field for long.”

Raul could feel the sweat bead on his brow.

“Cut power to all non-essential systems.”

When she executed this order, the interior lighting went out along with all onboard sensors. In the darkness, her voice seemed to have acquired greater volume, although he knew this was only because of how quiet the ship had suddenly gotten. The omnipresent low thrum from the aft engineering bay was now barely audible.

“Reduce life support to minimal,” he said.

“It’s going to get cold.”

“Fine.”

VJ made the adjustment.

“We are still consuming slightly more power than the damaged MDS is producing,” she said. “I have to keep the small stasis shield hull patch in place so that you can make manual repairs to the primary MDS in the aft bay.”

“Okay,” said Raul. “Somebody give me some options.”

Jennifer spoke up. “You have experience making manual repairs to this ship. If Dgarra and I enter one of the crew compartments amidships, you could reduce life support levels to keep us unconscious. That would also reduce the amount of life support you would need in the remainder of the ship.”

“That still won’t get our power consumption down to where we need it,” said VJ.

“Surely, there is something else we could turn off,” said Dgarra.

VJ hesitated, seemingly reluctant to state the obvious.

“That would be me,” she said.

“It would be just like going to sleep,” said Raul, although he failed to sound confident. “Once I have the MDS repaired, I’ll wake you, along with Dgarra and Jennifer.”

For a moment she seemed to sag, but then straightened.

“I’ll prepare the compartment for Dgarra and Jennifer. Once they are settled in, I will shut myself down.”

With that pronouncement, all conversation ceased. Over the next few minutes, the temperature dropped to the point that Raul found himself shivering in the dark. His artificial eye allowed him to see, although everything was limned in different shades of reds and blues.  Heather and Dgarra had retired to the compartment that VJ had prepared for them. Now he and VJ stood alone in the forward section of the command bay.

As he looked at her, she turned to face him, her holographic image now that of a beautiful ghost. Ever so slowly, she reached out to stroke his face with her right hand. The wonderful feel of that caress raised gooseflesh on his neck and arms. She blinked twice, mouthed a silent goodbye, and was gone.

Once more, Raul found himself alone on a broken starship, not knowing precisely where. Captain or not, one thing had not changed since this had all started.

Space still sucked.

 

 

Kindle Daily Deal 08/17/2016 The Rho Agenda August 17, 2016

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The three original books of my Rho Agenda Series: The Second Ship, Immune, and Wormhole are today’s Kindle Daily Deal for $1.99 each.

Orson Scott Card Reviews Immune August 16, 2016

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I want to send a shoutout to the great Orson Scott Card who helped launch my fulltime writing career with his review of Immune.

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“A second volume that stands alone – brilliantly”
Orson Scott Card

Richard Phillips has led such a life that he absolutely nails the science aspect of this new sci-fi classic – and yet also gets the action and the political aspects exactly right as well. Speaking as an old sci-fi writer myself, I know how hard it is to do what Phillips has done. But here’s the clincher. Reading on my Nano, I began this book without remembering that this was volume two of the Rho Agenda series. Within a few chapters I realized that there must have been an earlier book. But so skillfully does Phillips handle exposition, and so clearly and deeply did he create his characters and their relationships, that I felt no need to stop and go back to listen to the first volume. I WILL go back and listen to The Second Ship, now that I’ve read Immune to its brilliant and completely satisfying end – but only because this new writer is so skillful and this storyline is so inventive and moving that I don’t want to miss a chapter of it. I promise you that Richard Phillips is going to be a popular and influential writer, period.

The Rho Agenda has young protagonists, and so the series could be viewed as YA (Young Adult) fiction. While the novel is brutally real, including sexual tension, there is NO explicit sex and nothing to keep you from handing this book to a mature and well-informed twelve-year-old. Yet it is also completely fulfilling for adult readers – as good as any science fiction being written today.

MacLeod Andrews gives a perfect performance. You forget you’re listening to a book. All you can think about is what’s happening and why. Moving back and forth among characters, he is always clear as to who’s talking – without “doing” voices in any obvious way. This is how audiobooks are supposed to be read.

 

The Altreian Enigma CH 1-5 Draft July 7, 2016

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As a treat for my fans, here are the first five chapters of The Altreian Enigma. Enjoy.

THE ALTREIAN ENIGMA (DRAFT)

Book Two of The Rho Agenda Assimilation

Richard Phillips
Text copyright © 2016 Richard Phillips

All rights reserved.

Prologue

As the bitter winter wind howls through the night, attempting to prevent me from entering the cavern housing the Altar of the Gods, its chill pulls my breath forth in smoky puffs that I barely notice. I crawl through the opening, light a torch that I take from its wall sconce, and allow my feet to carry me through the passage that leads to the altar. There my footsteps halt.

The beautiful golden orb that graces the end of the Incan Sun Staff captures my gaze. Its intricately carved rings and complex arrangement of gears and shafts that form its inner workings hold me in a spell that I am unable to break. With my gaze locked to the symbols that cry out to be rearranged, a slow boiling fear floods my soul. Even as I stand alone, frozen in terror, in thrall to this wonder of wonders that rests atop the altar, I feel my hands move toward the orb of their own volition.

If the touch of the staff sends a strange current through my body, the feel of the golden metal beneath my fingertips shifts my perspective and causes the cavern to shrink around me until I can see myself. It is as if I have become the cavern and everything within it. The thing in my head screams in a way that I have only heard in my dreams, and my body shakes like the boughs of the trees out in that howling wind. Yet my hands continue to stroke the orb.

Now they twist it, first the bottom ring, aligning the symbols with new counterparts on the silver staff, before skipping up several rings to repeat the process. And as my hands turn ring after ring in a seemingly random order, the intricate engravings grab the torchlight so that its flames crawl across the golden surface and into the orb’s interior.

Shaking uncontrollably, my hands nevertheless turn the next to last ring until all the symbols feel wrongfully right, so much of the torchlight now absorbed by the orb that the cavern grows dark around me.

My right hand now wraps the last of the circular rings in a death grip, as my left hand clutches the silver staff; the muscles in my hands and arms bulge and slither beneath my skin as they war with each other for control. Cold, more deadly than ice, slides through my veins and into my chest, cramping my lungs on its way to my heart. Then with a final convulsion, my fingers twitch, imparting to the topmost ring one last shift. As the golden orb pulses with power, a doorway slides open at my feet.

It summons me forward, down the metallic ramp that leads into a large chamber illuminated with a soft, magenta glow. As I step into the room, the knowledge that this place was not built by the hands of men is absolute. And at its center, five translucent pedestals rise from the floor as if extruded from the end of a glassblower’s pipe, molded into the form of chairs.

The recognition of this place floods into me from the being who shares my mind. I stand inside a massive alien research craft, sent here centuries ago with a dual purpose: to conduct a scientific mission to observe and record humanity’s advancement and, should humans adopt the banned wormhole technologies of the Kasari Collective, to summon a planet killer to cleanse the Earth of all life before it can be completely assimilated.

Chapter 1

Jack Gregory opened his eyes, exiting the dream that wasn’t a dream. He didn’t dream anymore. Not like ordinary people. Instead, these strange lucid visions now dominated his sleep.

This latest one had recurred nightly since Jack, Janet, and their eight-year-old son, Robby, had accompanied Mark and Heather Smythe on their flight from Peru to the couple’s secret facility in New Zealand. Jack rolled onto his left side, placing his right arm over Janet’s naked body. She sighed softly and snuggled into him without waking. That was good. He didn’t want to inflict his sleepless nights on his wife.

In this vision, he once again stood in the altar cavern beneath the Bolivian Kalasasaya Temple. And the space looked exactly the same as the last time Jack stood inside it, except that he now stood alone in the torch-lit chamber instead of locked in a death match with the neo-Nazi albino, Dolf Gruenberg. Jack should have felt comforted by the memory of the explosion that had collapsed the cavern, burying the Incan Sun Staff and the altar atop which it had been mounted. But he knew that no amount of crashing rock could destroy the Altreian artifact or the monstrous craft that rested beneath it. And being buried beneath tons of rock wouldn’t prevent the thing from accomplishing its ultimate purpose should humanity pull the trigger.

Years before, as he bled out in a Calcutta clinic, Jack had accepted the alien mind into his brain for one more chance at life. Jack had no doubt about why that banished Altreian being, known as Khal Teth, was amping up the threatening nature of these visions.

Humanity’s lifeline was growing short, and there was only one way to prevent the coming catastrophe.

Unfortunately, that would require Jack giving up everything he loved. As he pulled Janet’s body more tightly against his own, he gritted his teeth. Even though she and his friends would doubtless think he’d lost his mind, Jack could no longer delay the inevitable.

It was time to honor the bargain he’d made.

***

Having just donned her black yoga outfit, Janet Price stared into Jack’s brown eyes, too stunned by the words that had just spilled from his lips to fully process them. When he had stepped up behind her, clad only in his jeans, and taken her in his arms, she thought he was trying to seduce her away from her morning workout. But the sadness in his eyes told her something very different. That look, combined with his words, froze her heart inside her chest.

“You’re not leaving me behind,” she said, her voice having dropped so low she didn’t recognize it. “I won’t let you.”

“Where I have to go, you can’t follow.”

“Bullshit!”

The hurt in Jack’s eyes tried to rob Janet of her sudden fury but failed. He sat down on the edge of the bathtub.

“I had the dream again, but this time, it was worse.”

Janet found herself sitting beside him without realizing that she’d moved, a profound sense of dread having doused her anger. A decade ago, when the NSA director, Admiral Jonathan Riles, sent her to Germany to convince the ex-CIA assassin known as “The Ripper” to join her black-ops team, she learned that there was something strange about Jack. That first mission had taken them through Europe and into the heart of Kazakhstan. But in Bolivia, in the cavern beneath the Kalasasaya Temple, she became convinced that Jack had lost his mind.

Three months later, during a raid that stopped the Chinese assassin, Qiang Chu, from releasing a rogue artificial intelligence on the world, Jack convinced her that he shared his mind with an alien being who called himself Khal Teth. Back then, she helped Jack block out the disturbing influence that threatened his sanity.

But six months ago, in her desperation to rescue their eight-year-old son, Robby, Janet had begged Jack to unleash that alien presence once more, knowing the risks.

Janet swallowed hard and said what she didn’t want to. “Go on.”

In the excruciating half hour that followed, as she listened to what Jack had to tell her, Janet’s dread found its source.

***

Deep inside the abandoned New Zealand gold mine that he and Heather had transformed into their secret compound, Mark Smythe watched as an army of robots worked on expansion. He glanced over at Heather, who stood beside him on the platform overlooking the central manufacturing hub.

At twenty-seven, his wife was more beautiful than ever, radiating power in a way that he found incredibly sexy. If anyone could save the world from the Kasari invaders that would soon come through the gateway that the United Federation of Nation States was building, it was his beautiful savant.

To think how far they’d come from the little Los Alamos, New Mexico, bedroom community of White Rock, where they’d grown up next door to each other and been best friends long before they were lovers. Their life had been low-key, comfortable, blown sky high when they had stumbled onto the crashed Altreian starship and put on the alien headsets. Not only had the devices linked their minds to the starship’s computer, revealing the intragalactic warfare between the Altreians and the Kasari Collective, but the three headbands had altered Mark, Heather, and Jennifer in different ways. A year and a half later, Jack and Janet’s baby, Robby, accidently slipped the fourth of the Altreian headsets over his temples and underwent a similar transformation.

As Mark looked at his wife, he knew that he wouldn’t have chosen a different path, despite the horrors they had been through.

He redirected his gaze across the thirty-thousand-square-foot room that they had hollowed out of the bedrock a mile beneath New Zealand’s Tasman District. What was happening inside the facility had never before been achieved on Earth.

They had created this broad variety of robots from Heather’s designs. They weren’t artificially intelligent but could be remotely controlled through virtual-reality headsets. And whatever task the operator performed using the robot’s body, the robot learned. Not just that robot either. The knowledge was uploaded to the supercomputer network, where it could then be downloaded to other robots. During the last several years, the automatons had learned to build and operate everything within the compound, including the manufacture of new robots.

Since Mark and Heather had returned to their New Zealand compound, accompanied by Jack, Janet, and Robby, the pace of construction had reached an exponential tipping point. The automated systems now only needed new tasks to perform, something that Heather excelled at doling out. And as she did so, the designs produced by her augmented savant mind grew more and more advanced.

Once finished, the room would house sixteen large-scale additive-manufacturing machines, also known as 3-D printers, capable of producing the next generation of devices and components needed for the fight that they both knew was coming. Among her latest innovations, Heather had designed a series of micro-bots that weren’t quite self-organizing nano-materials but perhaps the next best thing.

Swarms of these mite-sized bots could be directed to create or modify electrical channels down to the circuit-board level. The micro-bots could cut through insulation or interconnect to create new conductive paths, adding an enormously useful capability to Heather’s growing robotic-manufacturing toolkit.

While the rapidly increasing power demands would have placed a strain on the original pair of cold-fusion reactors, the redundant array of matter disrupter-synthesizers or MDSs barely noticed the load. Considering the pace at which Heather’s plans were coming to fruition, that was a good thing.

The warble of Heather’s quantum-entangled phone brought Mark’s mind back to the present. Seeing her smile fade, Mark felt concern replace the satisfaction he’d experienced only moments before. She hung up and turned to him, raising her voice to be heard above the clamor of ongoing construction.

“Janet wants us topside right away. Something’s going on with Jack. From her tone, it’s not good.”

For a moment Heather’s eyes turned milky white, as they often did when one of her savant visions consumed her. That didn’t surprise him, but he was taken aback when she broke into a run toward the elevator.

Mark, making use of his augmented speed, sprinted after her, reaching her side just as she pressed the call button. The elevator door whisked open, and they stepped inside the waiting car. The space was industrial sized, capable of carrying any of the equipment that was brought to or from this level, big enough to make him feel small.

Heather punched the button for the top level, the doors whisked closed, and the car accelerated upward. Despite the speed at which the electromagnetic drive propelled the elevator, the trip to the surface took almost five minutes, Mark’s ears popping several times along the way.

Whatever had happened, he had no doubt that it involved that otherworldly weirdness that draped Jack “The Ripper” Gregory like an aura. A decade ago, that force had ruled their lives for two and a half years. And now, as the Earth spiraled toward its destruction, that part of Jack had once again been summoned. A crazy thought.

The muscles in Mark’s arms and back tensed. He pulled forth the perfect memory of how he felt in deep meditation, letting it wash away the tension. But the technique failed to cleanse his mind.

***

Janet heard the door open and turned from Jack to see Mark and Heather enter the small conference room. As Heather took her seat at the table, she asked the question that Janet had been expecting.

“What’s going on?”

Janet turned to Jack, struggling to keep her expression from showing the emotions that churned beneath the surface. “Tell them.”

Jack’s chiseled face showed no hint of what Janet knew he was feeling, but a chill had crept into his voice.

“Last night I had another of my lucid dreams.”

“The Incan Sun Staff,” said Heather.

“This was different. I know what it does.”

“You’ve already convinced us that the Sun Staff is important,” Mark said. “It’s why we’ve funded the Kalasasaya dig to retrieve it.”

Janet watched as Jack shifted his gaze from Mark to Heather.

“It opens a portal into an enormous Altreian research vessel buried beneath the Kalasasaya Temple.”

“You think another Altreian starship crashed in Bolivia?” Mark asked.

“The vessel that lies beneath the Kalasasaya Temple arrived centuries ago, but it didn’t crash,” Jack replied.

“What’s it been doing all this time? Hanging out?”

Jack’s eyes narrowed, a clear indication that he didn’t like the tone of Mark’s question. But Janet couldn’t blame Mark. She didn’t want to believe it either.

“I don’t know,” Jack said, “but I do know what it’s going to do if I don’t stop it.”

Heather leaned forward to rest her elbows on the conference table. Janet hadn’t seen her eyes turn white. Jack clearly had her complete attention.

“Tell me.”

Again Janet saw the rigidity in Jack’s body as she watched the muscles move beneath his skin.

“If the wormhole gateway that the UFNS is building goes active and the Kasari come through, the buried Altreian vessel will summon an Altreian planet killer to destroy all life on Earth before the Kasari can bring through enough military might to prevent that.”

“If that’s true,” said Mark, “why didn’t it summon the planet killer when Dr. Stephenson’s gate opened a wormhole and the Kasari came through?”

“Hell, I don’t know,” said Jack. “Maybe because you nuked it.”

“We didn’t find any reference to a planet killer in the Second Ship’s database,” Heather said.

“No, but you found planets that had once hosted intelligent life that are now lifeless,” said Jack. “It’s possible that the ship is still denying you and Mark access to parts of its database.”

“That’s . . . possible,” said Heather.

“Jack,” said Janet, no longer able to restrain herself, “Khal Teth’s trying to manipulate you through your dreams, showing you what he wants you to see in order to get you to fulfill your bargain.”

Jack shook his head. “I would sense if he was lying to me.”

“You can’t be sure of that.”

“I am.”

Janet leaned back in her chair, feeling her temples throb.

“Wouldn’t Eos have told Robby if the Altreians had sent another starship to Earth?” Mark asked.

The mention of the Altreian AI that had fled from the Second Ship’s computer into Robby’s mind didn’t improve Janet’s mood.

“Eos shares Robby’s mind,” Heather said, “but it no longer has access to the Altreian starship’s database.”

“Unless Robby puts on his Altreian headset and performs a specific query,” said Mark.

Heather brightened at the suggestion. “That could work.”

A sudden glimmer of hope caused Janet to lean forward. “And if Eos doesn’t find anything to confirm your dream, that would mean—”

“Nothing,” Jack said, “except that the information about the Altreian research vessel isn’t stored in the Second Ship’s database.”

Janet placed her hand atop his and squeezed hard.

“Before we start down this path, I want you to explain to our son exactly what Khal Teth wants from you,” Janet said, swallowing hard, “and why he’ll never see his dad again if you go through with it.”

Jack’s brown eyes met hers, and for a moment she thought she saw the familiar red glint within his pupils. And as he gently returned her squeeze, the subtle gesture brought moisture to her eyes that she blinked away.

Dear God, don’t you dare take him away from me.

Chapter 2

Wearing a dark-gray Italian suit, Alexandr Prokorov walked through the broad tunnel, ignoring the incessant dripping of condensation from the concrete ceiling, just as he ignored the smell of mildew and the chill in this dank corridor. Beside him strode Dr. Lana Fitzpatrick, the U.S. undersecretary for science and energy. This being her first trip to the construction site of the wormhole gate that the United Federation of Nation States had dubbed the Friendship Gate, her deep discomfort at the subterranean environment showed in her tight body language. She jerked involuntarily at the sound of each drip, twitching at the echo of their footsteps as they walked along this passage.

Ahead, the tunnel suddenly widened into a yawning space that would have dwarfed the Large Hadron Collider’s Atlas Cavern. Prokorov heard Lana gasp at the sight. He had to admit that it still sent a shiver of excitement up his spine each time he entered the chamber. Inside, thousands of workers, scientists, and engineers scurried about as their supervisors pressed them to get the project back on schedule.

Eight years ago, the building of the Stephenson Gateway had broken all records for such complex construction. But Dr. Stephenson had suffered from a series of constraints that this project didn’t have. First of all, the size of the Atlas Cavern, enormous as it was, didn’t allow for the matter disrupter to be placed adjacent to the wormhole gate that it powered. That meant that extensive superconductive cabling had to be routed inside from an external power source, slowing down the construction.

But this wasn’t the only advantage that the current construction project had over the original Stephenson Gateway project. Technological advances in materials and computing allowed for extensive miniaturization and optimization techniques that reduced the overall size of the project.

Prokorov continued his advance toward the inverted, horseshoe-shaped gate within which the wormhole would be created. The program’s top scientist, Dr. John Guo, stood within its arch. At five-foot four inches tall, the dark-haired Chinese man exuded an energy that made him seem larger than those gathered around him, and his pointed gestures indicated that he was far from satisfied with their efforts.

As Prokorov and Dr. Fitzpatrick approached, Dr. Guo dismissed those with whom he had been remonstrating and turned to meet the new arrivals.

“Aaah, Minister Prokorov,” he said, his English free of any identifiable accent. “I was informed of your arrival. How was your journey from The Hague?”

“Uneventful,” Prokorov said before turning toward his companion. “This is Dr. Lana Fitzpatrick, the U.S. undersecretary of science and energy.”

Dr. Guo raised an eyebrow as he shifted his gaze toward the blond American scientist. Something in his fleeting expression gave Prokorov the sense that these two had more than a passing familiarity. He would check into his hunch at a later date.

“It’s good to see you again, John,” Dr. Fitzpatrick said, extending her hand.

Dr. Guo took it and returned the smile, although his face held none of the warmth hers offered. “Always a pleasure.”

“I wasn’t aware the two of you knew each other,” Prokorov said.

Dr. Fitzpatrick’s blue eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “We worked together for a time at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. But that was a long time ago.”

As clearly neither scientist wanted to offer up more than fleeting glimpses into their past relationship, Prokorov shifted topics to the one he was interested in.

“So, walk me through the progress your team has made in recovering from this latest incident.”

Dr. Guo’s already-dour expression turned grimmer. “I already sent you my update.”

“I read it. That’s why I’ve come in person . . .to ensure that you have a true sense of urgency.”

The scientist opened his mouth and started to say something, but then, looking directly into Prokorov’s eyes, seemed to think better of it.

“Fine. You can see for yourself.”

Dr. Guo turned and walked toward the towering piece of machinery that Prokorov recognized as the matter disrupter. It looked somewhat like a gigantic generator that had been stood on its end and wrapped with a lattice of steel scaffolding, seventy yards high. And along the multiple levels of scaffolding, scores of workers moved.

Dr. Guo didn’t wait for Prokorov and Dr. Fitzpatrick to catch up with him, proceeding directly to a metal doorway that led into the matter disrupter’s interior. He opened the door and stepped through. Prokorov and Dr. Fitzpatrick followed him across the threshold.

The walkway that extended along the outer wall was just wide enough for two people to walk abreast. Oddly shaped tubes and instruments clung to the sides of curved columns that rose up into the dimly lit upper reaches. More passages branched off into the middle of the clustered equipment. Workers were forced to crawl in order to traverse some of the tunnels.

The design had a distinctly alien feel. In these depths, far below the rolling countryside, the construction progressed on an extremely aggressive schedule without all the overly restrictive safety protocols normally required of such a project. But this latest accident had brought that progress to a screeching halt.

For another three minutes, Dr. Guo led them through a maze of increasingly cramped walkways before entering an elevator cage and turning to face his guests, his arms spread in mock welcome. Prokorov stepped in beside the chief scientist, but Dr. Fitzpatrick stopped outside the metal cage, her head tilted back to stare at the cabling that guided the elevator into the heights.

When she looked down, Prokorov saw that the color had drained from her face.

“Is something wrong?” Dr. Guo asked.

Dr. Fitzpatrick cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. I have a thing about heights.”

“Get in or stay behind,” Prokorov said.

She swallowed hard, straightened, and stepped inside. The cage door closed behind Dr. Fitzpatrick with a clank that sounded like a jail door closing. Prokorov noted the white knuckles on her hand that grasped on to one of the vertical bars that made up the cage’s walls.

Dr. Guo pressed a button, and the cage surged upward with an acceleration that made Prokorov’s stomach lurch. Beside him, Dr. Fitzpatrick’s gasp showed that she regretted her decision to accompany them.

The journey didn’t take long. When the cage rattled to a stop, Prokorov guessed that they had risen roughly ten floors, a guess that a downward glance through the steel grating confirmed. Ignoring the wobbling American scientist, he followed Dr. Guo along one of the interconnecting walkways, their shoes clanking on the steel grating and echoing through the conduits that draped the machinery.

An eerie world of cryonic equipment kept the electrical conduits at a temperature cold enough to maintain superconductivity, thus allowing for the transport of tremendous power from the matter disrupter to the wormhole gateway and its stasis field generator. And since the matter disrupter could transform energy into any type of particle, in this case directly into electron-positron pairs, its efficiency was almost 100 percent.

Dr. Guo came to an abrupt halt at a point where the passage gave way to a room-sized open space. The monitors, computers, and controls that had recently lined this room’s interior had been reduced to burnt-out scrap. What remained was being piled onto a hand trolley by a dozen technicians who worked to clear debris and repair the damage. From the scowls Prokorov saw on their faces, his surprise inspection wasn’t particularly welcome.

Prokorov felt his jaw tighten. “What is this?”

“This,” said Dr. Guo, “is what you were too impatient to let me brief you on from the relative safety of the main chamber. Two days ago, the matter disrupter suffered a minor instability ten yards on the other side of that shielding. Since then my people have been working around the clock to fix the problem.”

“You mean there was a radioactive leak?” Dr. Fitzpatrick gasped, unconsciously pushing back a strand of her blond hair.

“No, but the matter disrupter proved to be far more efficient than we were prepared for. This damage was caused by a massive electrical power surge.” Dr. Guo turned his gaze back on Prokorov. “It’s exactly why I warned you against the dangerous pace at which you’ve been pushing us.”

Prokorov ignored the jab. “Describe to me in the simplest terms possible the precise nature of the problem and how you intend to fix it.”

“The matter disrupter relies on a wave-packet model of matter. All matter is composed of a harmonic chord of frequencies that combine together to form a stable packet. You can think of it as a three-dimensional standing wave that compresses the underlying fabric of our universe into a tight little vibrating bundle. Some of these wave packets are not completely harmonic and try to dispel the destabilizing frequencies, giving them off as radiation as the packet attempts to achieve a harmonious chord.

“The matter disrupter takes advantage of this by adding a destabilizing set of frequencies to the particles at which it is targeted. The ultimate disruption would be to supply a set of frequencies that completely cancels out the particle’s wave packet—an anti-packet. But we don’t have to supply a complete anti-packet. The proper subset of destabilizing frequencies will make the particle tear itself apart.”

Dr. Guo paused to meet Prokorov’s gaze.

“You’re familiar with the gateway design Dr. Stephenson built in Meyrin, Switzerland. What we are building here is a very different beast, one that incorporates a number of measures intended to prevent any type of external hacking attacks. Chief among these is the requirement that all control programs be physically implemented via circuitry instead of software. And each of those preprogrammed operational modes must be manually switched on and off.

“Normally I would have created a much smaller experimental prototype so that we could work out the design problems that were bound to happen. Since I wasn’t allowed to do that, we are now encountering those problems at full scale.”

Prokorov gritted his teeth. If he had anyone else with this man’s knowledge of the project, he would have replaced Dr. Guo long ago.

“Don’t give me excuses. Just stick to the facts.”

“The facts are what you see before you. The disrupting wave packet was too perfect and triggered a matter-antimatter reaction that produced the excess energy that killed seven of my top people and did the damage you see before you. Even working around the clock, it will take us six weeks to complete the repairs.”

“I want this repair work completed within three weeks.”

“What you want is irrelevant. The repairs will be completed as soon as possible and not before.”

“Suppose I send some of our top scientists and engineers to help?”

Dr. Guo shrugged. “My people are already familiar with this project. Newcomers would need to be trained on our equipment, and that would just slow us down.”

Prokorov turned to look at Dr. Fitzpatrick. “Your thoughts?”

She paused to consider. “I can put together a top-notch group from Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and give them a week or so to study the design, construction, and operation of this reactor. Then, when they get here, they won’t be coming in cold.”

Seeing that Dr. Guo was about to object, Prokorov held up a hand. “Good. Dr. Guo, see that Dr. Fitzpatrick gets all of the pertinent materials. Any questions?”

Prokorov watched as the chief scientist’s gaze swung from Dr. Fitzpatrick back to him, the man’s expression changing from anger to a neutral stare. Clearly he hadn’t expected to be undercut by her, and he didn’t like it.

“No.”

Prokorov paused, his determination tightening his facial muscles. “Dr. Guo, do not disappoint me again. Second contact will not be kept waiting.”

For the first time, he saw fear in the scientist’s eyes. As Prokorov turned to walk away, he savored the image.

Chapter 3

Robby knew one thing for sure: this had just ruined what should have been a snowy and fun-filled August day in New Zealand. His dad had just sprung something on him that threatened to destroy what little remained of his childhood. After the events that had brought him to this secret complex where the Smythes were preparing for the end of the world, all he really had left of it was his relationship with his mom and dad. Now, if he couldn’t prove his dad wrong about the Incan Sun Staff and the alien vessel, Robby could lose him forever.

As horrible as that was, the thought of what such a loss would do to his mom was even worse. She didn’t speak a word when Jack sat him down at the kitchen table and spilled his story, but Robby had seen the dread in her eyes.

The revelation that Jack believed there was an alien presence in his head hadn’t shocked Robby. The boy shared his own mind with an alien artificial intelligence named Eos, an entity who had been his imaginary friend since he was a baby. Over the years, Eos had developed a relationship with Robby that transcended just an AI presence in his head. She initially referred to herself as the Other, but as he had grown older, Robby didn’t like that. So he had renamed her Eos, after the Greek goddess of the dawn. Together, they represented the dawning of a new age. Because of that relationship, it was no stretch of the imagination to believe this part of his dad’s story. But Robby wouldn’t allow himself to believe the rest.

Thus, Robby now sat in one of the four command-center chairs in a room modeled after the bridge of the Altreian starship that the Smythes had discovered.

On either side of him sat Mark and Heather while Jack and Janet stood watch. Robby still felt odd over beginning to think of his mom and dad as Jack and Janet. But since their escape from Peru, they had finally accepted him as a full-fledged member of the team that was fighting to save Earth from a renewed Kasari invasion. As such, he felt it only right that he refer to them as he would any other team member, even if it drove Janet crazy.

Robby retrieved the U-shaped alien headband from a compartment in his couch’s right armrest, paused to stare down at the iridescent three-quarter loop with the small beads at each end, inhaled deeply, then slid the headband into place. As the twin beads settled over his temples, he heard Eos whisper in his mind.

“Are you ready for this?”

“I’m ready,” Robby responded.

“No matter what I might discover?”

Robby felt himself swallow but pulled forth the required answer. “No matter what.”

The familiar mental connection with the Second Ship’s computer washed over him along with the strange thrill at the incredible knowledge made available to his augmented mind. He remembered initially wondering why these four headsets had been left on the Altreian starship when its crew members were sucked into space after the Rho Ship’s weapon punched a hole through the hull. In fact, the Altreian crew members had been able to use their psychic abilities to link their minds to the starship’s computer and only needed to wear the headsets in order to extend the range of their mental connection whenever they left the vessel.

Eos flowed into the Altreian computer system, resuming her original function as the AI that controlled the starship’s computer, pulling Robby’s mind along with her.

Although Mark and Heather could also connect to the neural net, only Eos had complete access to the database she had been created to manipulate.

Robby felt Mark’s and Heather’s minds within the Second Ship’s computer, but then he shifted his attention back to Eos and let the AI sweep him away into the seemingly infinite trove of data.

Ignoring all that was irrelevant to his current search, Robby found himself drawn into a vision that acquired such reality that it took his breath away. He felt as if he were transported onto a magical holodeck, where all he had to do was think about something and it would appear before him, amazingly detailed in every way—the texture, the smell, the sound his feet made on the surface across which they moved. If he had centered his thoughts on the Quechua village where he’d spent the first few years of his life, the Second Ship would pluck it from his perfect memory and make the stilted huts real.

But right now he was aboard an Altreian research vessel that had just emerged from subspace within a solar system he recognized. The viewpoint left him feeling as if he were a ghost in the starship, observing the five alien occupants from the perspective of the ship itself—more precisely, from the onboard sensors available to its computer.

He sat in a bubble as Neptune’s azure-blue orb swept by below him and to his right. He swung beneath Saturn, gasping at the vivid detail of its rings. Even that sight could not compare to the beautiful jewel that grew larger as he swept toward it. Earth.

But, beautiful as the imagery was, Eos was after something else. The scene faded, only to be replaced by fresh imagery of the interior of an Altreian vessel. Its immensity surprised Robby. This certainly wasn’t the Second Ship. Sensing the question that rose in his mind, Eos responded.

“This is the Altreian research vessel AQ37Z. The ship you call the Second Ship was carried to Earth inside this ship’s cargo bay.”

Robby validated her words by his own view of the information stored in the database he and Eos were accessing. The knowledge that the Second Ship was merely a scout craft that was used by the AQ37Z’s crew to gather data stunned him.

As he watched, the imagery changed again. Shortly after coming into Earth orbit, research vessel AQ37Z had performed a brief transition into subspace before emerging beneath the Earth’s surface in the Andes. Its reemergence had parted the subsurface rock, triggering a minor earthquake and cracking the ground to reveal a set of caverns and passages. Believing it a sign from their gods, the Incas had built the Kalasasaya Temple atop that sacred spot.

From the information that Eos directed into Robby’s mind, he understood that sending such a research craft to newly discovered worlds bearing sentient life-forms was a standard practice for the Altreians. Establish a hidden research outpost to monitor the intelligent species without interfering with its natural development.

Robby studied the imagery of the five Altreian crew members. They were humanoid in appearance, although of two distinctively different races. The AQ37Z had four small gray-skinned crew members and a tall captain with red-and-black-mottled skin and pointed ears that lay tight against his skull. The red glint in his black eyes gave the illusion that they burned with an inner fire. There was also something odd about his neck. What was that? Gill slits?

“Yes,” Eos responded, although Robby hadn’t formed his thoughts into a direct question to her. “The Altreian elite are all of the Dhaldric race that evolved to function in either air or water. They also have psionic abilities that are much stronger than that of the smaller Khyre race that makes up the bulk of the working and military classes.

“When a Khyre is assigned to a starship crew, they are given a crewman’s headset. When they first put it on, it connects their minds to the starship’s computer, which then alters the brain so that he or she can make that mental connection without having to wear the device. But if they leave the ship and wish to stay connected, they have to put on the headsets in order to extend their mental range.”

A sudden realization dawned on Robby. “So that’s what the headsets did to Mark, Heather, Jen, and me.”

“Yes, although it appears that they also had some unanticipated effects on your human brains.”

“How long has the ship been here?”

“Research outpost AQ37Z established its presence on Earth in your calendar year 1141 AD.”

Another thought bothered Robby. “Are they immortal?”

“No. Compared to humans, both races live very long lives, but they can die.”

Once again the imagery shifted and Robby found himself observing another part of the ship, this area a much smaller chamber containing five cylindrical pods mounted horizontally on waist-high pedestals. He adjusted his perspective, surprised that he was able to do so just by wanting to see the pods from a different angle.

The cylinders were formed of a metal that shifted colors, mostly greens and blues. Displays on the exterior showed the bodies resting within. Five cylinders holding five bodies. Eos’s answer came to Robby as he prepared to ask the question.

“This is the same crew you observed in the earlier recording. They spent the vast majority of their time on Earth in suspended animation inside these chrysalis cylinders, only waking every hundred years or so to analyze the data that was collected during the interim. The research vessel could also trigger an awakening in the event it observed something deemed of critical importance.”

Robby considered this. “Why do they call the suspended-animation chambers chrysalis cylinders?”

“They have more than one function. Not only do they act as suspended-animation chambers; if the correct synchronization codes are entered, they can link the minds of people inside separate chambers using subspace communications even more powerful than the Altreian headsets and with far greater range. The minds of those that are thus connected meld together, sharing memories as well as actual thoughts. A chrysalis cylinder can also work as an extreme punishment device, stripping the memories of one placed inside and expelling the mind from the body, trapping it in an alternate-dimensional void.”

“Wow! I think I want one.”

“No,” said Eos, “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

Robby had to admit to himself that Eos was probably right. He shifted his thoughts back to the original topic.

“How did the Second Ship end up fighting the Kasari Rho Ship?”

The vision of the bigger Altreian research vessel dissolved into the familiar imagery of the Second Ship battling the Kasari world ship as they hurtled toward Earth. When the Kasari vortex weapon punched a hole through the Second Ship, four small Altreian bodies were sucked out into the void of space as the vessel crashed to Earth. And as it did, Eos’s voice narrated.

“Having detected the wormhole that brought the Kasari world ship into this solar system, a wakeup signal was activated and AQ37Z’s five crew members were roused from suspended animation. All but the captain boarded the scout craft the Smythes named the Second Ship. Engaging its subspace drive from within the cargo bay, the craft emerged into normal-space to intercept the Kasari starship just beyond Saturn. The subsequent combat resulted in both ships shooting each other down over New Mexico in the year 1948. The U.S. government located the crashed Kasari ship almost immediately and spawned the top-secret Rho Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory in an attempt to reverse engineer its alien technology.”

As Robby’s mind studied the supporting imagery and data, his heart sank. He had put on the Altreian headset and entered the Second Ship’s computer in hopes of disproving his dad’s conviction that a dangerous alien craft was buried beneath the Kalasasaya Temple. Instead, everything Eos had shown him so far corroborated parts of that story.

Despite his growing sense of dread, Robby focused on the artifact his dad had called the Incan Sun Staff, instructing Eos to dig deeper into the Altreian research vessel’s purpose. Again the data flow intensified, flooding Robby’s brain with rapid-fire imagery and contextual knowledge.

One of the visuals showed a member of the Altreian crew presenting the artifact to an ornately robed native. The staff was silver, its six-foot length covered with intricately carved runes. A glittering golden orb was mounted atop the artifact, a complex clockwork mechanism with filigree rings more complicated than any Rubik’s Sphere. When twisted, the orb’s internal mechanisms produced new symbols around its exterior. If a precise sequence was entered, the staff could be mounted atop its golden altar, allowing a knowledgeable user to open a portal into the research vessel that lay beneath the altar. Having developed the technology to solve that riddle was a prerequisite for opening the portal.

Unknown to Manco Cápac, the Incan emperor to whom it had been gifted, the intricately etched silver staff and the complex clockwork mechanism that formed its golden-orb crownpiece contained a sophisticated set of sensors that communicated with AQ37Z through a subspace link.

Robby paused to consider this. Nothing in the data he had reviewed indicated that AQ37Z or its crew had ominous intentions toward humanity.

The fact that they had launched the Second Ship to intercept and shoot down the Kasari Rho Ship was a good sign, wasn’t it? When Eos was unable to provide an answer to that question, Robby found himself at an impasse. Apparently the information he was searching for hadn’t been uploaded into the Second Ship’s database.

Robby took a different tack, shifting his focus to Khal Teth, the name his dad had called the Altreian entity who shared his mind. Immediately a storm of historical information filled his consciousness, including a visual image of the convicted Altreian criminal.

Criminal!

That tag and the extensive data file that accompanied it filled Robby’s mind with renewed hope.

The overlord, Valen Roth, and other members of his High Council, a meritocracy consisting of the most powerful psionics from the Dhaldric race, ruled the Altreian Empire from their home world of Quol. Of the thirteen members of the council, Khal Teth was the most gifted. Able to dominate the minds of all save the collective strength of the other dozen, he seethed at the idea that Valen Roth, a lesser mind, ruled as overlord.

Khal Teth had tried to assassinate Valen Roth, but that effort, along with the rest of his coup attempt, had failed. The High Council had sentenced Khal Teth to the harshest of punishments for his crime. His body was placed in suspended animation inside a chrysalis cylinder, his mind wiped of its memories and banished to wander through alternate dimensions for eternity, capable of observation but incapable of experiencing anything he watched.

A vision of that fate formed in Robby’s head. To be trapped in a coma-like state for eternity sent a shudder through his body, thoughts ravaged by the unending helplessness that would accompany such imprisonment. Then again, the attempted assassination of any society’s leader typically brought harsh punishment. Like any criminal, Khal Teth had chosen his own fate.

There was no information on how Khal Teth had managed to escape that prison by establishing a link with a human mind, and Jack hadn’t explained the connection either. But that didn’t really matter. Robby now knew that Khal Teth was evil and had no doubt that the Altreian was attempting to manipulate Jack for his own purposes. Not the conclusive proof Robby was looking for, but close enough.

As Robby and Eos terminated the alien headset’s connection to the Second Ship’s computer, Robby braced himself for his next task—confronting Jack with the truth about Khal Teth. Surely that would be enough to stop Jack from going through with his plan.

For both Robby and Janet’s sake, it had to be.

Chapter 4

The characteristic sizzle and detonation of the Kasari disrupter weapons brought a growl from Jennifer’s throat. She knew that this heavy-artillery barrage was preparation for the assault to follow shortly. Despite the shielding provided by the new stasis field generators that had been emplaced at key points along the forward line of General Dgarra’s warriors, the protection it provided was far from perfect. The biggest problem was that whenever the stasis shields were engaged, the Koranthian warriors were prevented from firing upon the enemy, allowing the winged Eadric soldiers to advance ever closer to Dgarra’s fortifications. And using their wings, the Eadric could advance through the crags and cliffs very rapidly indeed, zipping from one covered battle position to another, taking advantage of the lulls in Koranthian fire.

Thus, at selected locations along Dgarra’s lines, the shields would drop to allow the Koranthians to fire their weapons, only to be raised again when the barrage stopped. When this happened, the shields would be lowered at other spots so that the Koranthians could continue to pound the enemy advance.

Ironically, Dr. Donald Stephenson had spent all those years at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Rho Division working to reverse engineer the alien technologies of the same Kasari starship that had carried Jennifer and Raul here to Scion. His work had made possible this alliance of convenience with General Dgarra and his Koranthian warriors. Now, thanks to Raul’s cyborg connection to the Rho Ship’s neural net, Dgarra’s forces had disrupter weapons of their own. That was great for combat at a distance, but when the combatants inevitably merged, the disrupters were worse than useless, far too destructive to be used in the vicinity of one’s own forces.

That was fine with Jennifer. As much as she hated the killing that came with warfare, she preferred to look into her enemy’s eyes or, in the case of the Kasari gorilla-spiders, to smell the stink of their bodies as she sent them from this existence into the next. If someone had to die, they deserved to see who was killing them instead of being ripped apart or roasted alive by a distant and faceless enemy.

She knew this feeling was irrational. Death was death, no matter how it happened. But she also knew from whom she’d picked up this philosophy. Dgarra. One of the disadvantages of her empathic ability. When she experienced the feelings of another individual too often, those emotions tended to latch on to her like an acquired taste. And as Dgarra’s aide-de-camp, she spent the vast majority of her time either in his presence or performing duties as his personal messenger.

Jennifer glanced to her right at the Koranthian general as he looked out through the narrow canyon that led to the nearest of the caverns. At seven feet tall, the leader wasn’t particularly big by the standards of his people. But he radiated the charismatic self-confidence and fierce will that had made him a battlefield legend. She could feel his aura radiate from him and into the warriors around him. Such confidence was the reason he had chosen to be at this spot right now. This would be the place on this battlefield where victory or defeat would soon be decided.

She felt her jaws clench at the thought of the Kasari Collective, an empire intent on assimilating other species, making them a part of its hive-mind, as it spread like a virus throughout the galaxy. Although they found many races willing to join the collective, the Koranthians would never yield their fiercely ingrained independence. That left the Kasari and their Eadric allies no choice but to exterminate this warrior race.

A sudden change caused Jennifer to look away from Dgarra. On the far side of the stasis field, thousands of Eadric swept into the gap that lay just beyond as withering fire from their artillery targeted the places in the Koranthian defense that had a clear line of sight to the main assault. That covering fire blasted great gouts of rock from the surrounding mountains and generated rock slides that forced other stasis fields to be raised. During those moments when the volume of Koranthian fire decreased, the Eadric surged forward.

Dgarra issued the command that dropped the protective stasis field in front of him, and Jennifer felt a wave of battle lust spread through the surrounding warriors. To her front the Koranthians opened up with short-range lasers, then switched to their dual-edged war-blades as they met the Eadric charge. Jennifer lunged forward at Dgarra’s side, her own war-blade whistling through the cold air as she ducked beneath an Eadric soldier’s blaster. Her blade took the arm that held that pistol and then the screaming head above it, sending forth a fountain of nanite-infested Eadric blood.

The screams of rage and pain, the clash of metal, and the roar of battle drowned out the wind that howled through the outcroppings, trying to sweep her from the ledge upon which she fought. She drew upon tremendous effort and focus to direct her augmented senses into the minds of those around her, but in the midst of battle, she managed. Her mind touched the nearest Eadric fighters, divining their intentions as she moved to counter their attempts to target her. Despite the covering laser fire that blasted Eadric flyers from the sky, more were getting through than were being killed.

Jennifer felt an Eadric female aim a pistol toward her and lunged to the side, taking a laser burn high up on her left shoulder. The white-hot pain lanced through her brain, momentarily darkening her vision before she could shunt it into a distant part of her mind.

Jennifer kicked out, launching another Eadric soldier into the female as she once again squeezed the trigger. The laser cut a smoking hole through two winged soldiers but missed Jennifer by six inches. She leaped forward, her descending blade splitting the female soldier’s skull down the middle.

To her left and right, Koranthian warriors fell, including Bracken, one of Dgarra’s elite guard. Aware of his presence, the Eadric focused their attack on Dgarra, while all around the general his warriors rallied to him. He easily chopped down the enemies who got within striking distance of his war-blade.

As Jennifer fought her way toward him, a distant thought caught her attention. Her gaze shifted up the cliff to her left. From a perch atop a narrow ledge fifty feet above, one of the four-armed Kasari shock troops aimed its disrupter weapon down toward them. A suicidal goal. The blast would kill all who battled on this ledge, but it would also collapse the outcropping upon which the Kasari stood.

Knowing that drawing and firing her own blaster would have the same disastrous effect, Jennifer thrust her mind into that of the Kasari. The alien’s surprise introduced a moment of hesitation, and in that moment, Jennifer transferred an urgent need to drop the weapon. She felt his grip loosen, but then he caught himself, his will strengthening to match hers. Far below, Jennifer felt her body stumble, pitching out toward the chasm, only to be jerked backward by Dgarra’s strong hands.

The Kasari’s grip on his disrupter tightened, and Jennifer focused all of her will into the brain that controlled this four-armed body, barely managing to prevent the trigger squeeze that would end them all. A wave of vertigo assailed Jennifer as the four-armed alien teetered on the brink, his corded muscles fighting themselves in an effort to aim and fire his weapon.

Jennifer felt the Kasari shift his attention but failed to understand its significance until it was too late. The change shocked her so badly that she almost lost her mental link. She felt as if a dozen minds had suddenly merged with hers . . . and then hundreds . . . and then thousands. And as all that mental power focused on her, she stopped trying to understand what was happening and sent a single mental command to the nerves in the Kasari soldier’s legs.

As her consciousness fled the mind storm that she had unwittingly unleashed, the ledge spun away from her. With a burst of focused will, she broke the Kasari’s mental connection with the others and pulled him alongside her into shadow.

***

Distant voices speaking in low, urgent tones welcomed Jennifer back to consciousness, accompanied by a skull-cracking headache that pulled a moan from her lips. She struggled to open her eyes, but they felt like they’d been glued shut. When they did open, the big room spun so rapidly that she squeezed them shut again while a wave of nausea tried to empty her stomach.

Jennifer forced herself to concentrate. With her mental augmentations, she should have been able to clear her head of the migraine, or whatever this was. But though she managed to reduce the throbbing intensity, she failed to rid herself of the pain, a sensation akin to something being ripped open inside her brain.

She remembered her mind connecting with that of the Kasari. Not with an individual mind. Her action had drawn the attention of many minds, more than enough to overwhelm her. She had no doubt that if that mental connection had lasted another couple of seconds, her mind would have broken completely. She should be thankful to have awakened with this hangover from hell. Right now, though, she was having a difficult time acquiring the appropriate level of gratitude.

With a fresh burst of willpower, Jennifer sat up and swung her legs off the side of a pallet, somehow managing to avoid puking her guts out as she struggled to her knees, one hand on the stone wall for support.

“Lie back down, or get out of our way.”

The deep voice pulled her head up. To her left, doctors and nurses worked to stabilize wounded warriors, their gray gloves and gowns stained with Koranthian blood that was such a dark red that it looked almost black. On the bed to her left, the whine of a bone saw was followed by the thump of an amputated leg landing in a large bucket, having been dropped by the doctor who had just spoken to her.

A little over a year ago, the sight of this much carnage would have left her weak and shaking. Now it just pulled her to her feet. Instead of pissing her off, the doctor’s harsh words spurred her into motion. She rose to her feet, where she wavered unsteadily for several seconds before making her way through the mayhem toward the exit.

As she sidestepped the medical staff and their equipment, she scanned the room, anxious to see if she recognized any of the wounded, but the severe nature of some of the injuries had left several patients unrecognizable.

When she stepped out of the field hospital, she found herself standing inside a cavern she knew well, one that lay along the primary railway line, less than a mile south of General Dgarra’s headquarters. As she watched, six maglev ambulance cars rounded the bend and came to a stop at the elevated platform. The doors opened to disgorge a line of medics carrying the most severely wounded on litters, leaving the patients who were still ambulatory to limp down the ramp to the triage area.

Exhaustion wafted from these seven-foot warriors in waves that didn’t require her unique mental abilities to pick up. But what worried her more was the profound sense of depression that accompanied their weariness. These battle-hardened Koranthians, male and female alike, were unfamiliar with losing. But the unending succession of assaults by the Eadric and their Kasari allies had siphoned doubt into their souls—doubts about their own abilities and, more importantly, doubts that even their legendary commander could win this fight.

As Jennifer looked at them, her will solidified, driving the headache from her consciousness. She pulled her subspace receiver-transmitter headset from a cargo pocket in her black uniform trousers, letting the beads at either end of the partial loop settle over her temples. Her mind made the connection with the Rho Ship’s neural net, and through that to Raul. His relief flooded her mind.

“Christ. Where the hell have you been?”

“I got knocked out and medevaced to the First Medical Detachment’s field hospital.”’

“How bad are you hurt?”

“I’m fine. What’s our current situation?”

She felt his mood grow more somber.

“Not great. Dgarra’s lines are still holding, but he ordered me to take the Rho Ship off planet. Right now I’m on the back side of Scion’s nearest moon. The ship is cloaked, and I’m monitoring the battle through the worm-fiber viewers.”

Jennifer accessed the video feeds, letting the imagery fill her mind. Night had fallen over the northern Koranthian Mountains, but brilliant flashes from the ongoing battle laced the sky.

“Can’t you use the Rho Ship’s weapons to support Dgarra?”

“Yes, but the Kasari will detect it and intercept me with their fast battle cruisers. I might be able to make one pass before I have to shift into subspace and get the hell out of there. After that, they’ll have weapons ready to blast me out of the sky if I try it again.”

“Any relief you can give Dgarra’s troops may make the difference.”

VJ, the artificial intelligence that Raul had modeled on Jennifer’s personality, interrupted. “I don’t recommend that.”

“And I don’t give a damn,” Jennifer said, feeling her headache reassert itself. Raul wavered, and Jennifer reached deeper into his mind, tweaking his confidence just enough to ensure that he made the right decision. It felt wrong to manipulate someone who had saved her life multiple times, but right now she didn’t have time to argue this out.

“Okay. I’ll give it a try.”

“Thank you,” she said, relief accompanying her thought message. “Good luck.”

Jennifer removed the headset and returned it to its pocket. Seeing that the ambulance train was preparing to depart for its trip back to the battlefront, she trotted up the ramp and stepped aboard.

Ever since General Dgarra had violated the wishes of his uncle, Emperor Goltat, and made Jennifer a ward of his house and his aide-de-camp, she had fought to prove herself worthy of his trust. Not only had she seen her efforts change the way he looked at her, but she’d also felt the general’s growing affection for her despite his efforts to maintain a strict military bearing.

She shared that feeling.

Taking a deep breath, Jennifer settled back into her seat. She would return to General Dgarra’s side. Whatever happened next, that was where she belonged.

Chapter 5

General Magtal strode through his headquarters adjacent to the emperor’s palace complex in the subterranean Koranthian city of ArvaiKheer, his seven-foot-frame quivering with a barely contained rage that worked its way up his dark-skinned face into the crown bones that topped his skull.

Word from the northern front was good—heroic, in fact. Such news was exactly what had set his teeth on knife’s edge. General Dgarra and his pet human female continued to hold out against far-superior enemy forces that included elite Kasari assault troops. This despite the ongoing denial of reinforcements to Dgarra’s beleaguered command. How much longer Magtal could continue to convince the emperor that the attacks against the northern front were merely a feint to convince him to divert troops there, he didn’t know. In truth, the Kasari, with their advanced worm-fiber viewing technology, knew precisely where the weakly defended points in the Koranthian defensive network were, in Dgarra’s sector.

But apparently Magtal could not count on that enemy to take advantage of that weakness to rid him of his most hated rival.

He reached his command center, hearing the announcement “Commanding General!” as he strode through the triton-steel doors.

“As you were,” he ordered, sending his warriors back to their duties.

Seating himself in the swivel chair that gave him an elevated view of the situational-awareness displays that tiled the room’s walls, Magtal waved away the aide who had scurried to his side. Right now he needed to think.

Dgarra’s human female had proved far more resourceful than Magtal would have thought, considering she had summoned her human companion to land the captured Kasari world ship within one of Dgarra’s hangars. Where exactly, Magtal didn’t know. Only through his spies inside Dgarra’s headquarters had the general learned of the landing and alien technologies Dgarra’s engineers were working to implement. They were getting help with those engineering efforts, of that there could be no doubt. And Dgarra had refused to share the results of his research, claiming that the work was purely in the experimental and test phases and that he would share the results should they prove stable and beneficial.

Just like the warrior—to take every advantage for himself, using his kinship with Emperor Goltat to secure that edge.

Magtal felt his lips curl to reveal his teeth, a look that sent the lieutenant who saw it scurrying to the far side of the room. Dgarra had forced his hand. Magtal was ready to release the dagger that would disgrace his rival and remove him from the line of ascension once and for all.

General Magtal would then be but a single step from the throne, a step that he would take in due time.

***

Raul leaned forward in the invisible command couch that was a precise manifestation of his control over the forward compartment’s stasis field generator. His right hand massaged the sudden tightness in his neck.

“You shouldn’t let her manipulate you like that.” VJ’s voice carried more than a hint of petulance. “This is stupid, and you know it.”

“She didn’t talk me into anything I wasn’t already considering.”

“That doesn’t make it any less stupid.”

“Just make the course calculations. I want to pop out of subspace ten thousand feet above the Eadric artillery positions, fire the ship’s disrupter weapons at that artillery, then shift back into subspace before they have a chance to respond.”

“Aye, Cap’n.”

For the thousandth time, Raul noted that he could have already accomplished what he was ordering VJ to do, but he had come to value the opposing feedback she provided. Either that or he was a closet masochist. He was glad that he had never given her a visual appearance to go along with Jennifer’s voice. Having her smirk or scowl at him would be way more than he wanted to put up with.

VJ delivered the subspace course calculations that would bring them out of subspace at the desired location. Unfortunately, since they would not have a chance to establish a normal-space momentum vector optimized for that spot, he would be forced into a tight maneuver immediately upon exiting subspace. And that maneuver would have to be completed before he activated the firing sequence from the ship’s disrupter weapons. That would increase his time over target, and since the ship’s stasis shield would have to stay down while he fired, the element of surprise was crucial for this attack to work.

The transition into subspace was accompanied by a subtle vibration that Raul didn’t like. A quick diagnostic revealed a minor anomaly in the functioning of the subspace field generator. Nothing serious, but he added the issue to his growing to-do list.

“Ten seconds until normal-space reentry,” VJ said.

Raul wrapped himself tightly in the stasis field that would protect him should the worst happen, feeling droplets of sweat pop out on his forehead as he did so. Christ, he wasn’t cut out for this space-warrior bullshit.

Then, as VJ’s countdown approached zero, he mentally rehearsed the weapons run. Pop into normal-space, bank hard, fire the Rho Ship’s disrupter beams, then pop back into subspace. Nothing to it, a mantra he repeated with each count. Hopefully he would come to believe it.

***

The Rho Ship materialized ten thousand and four feet above the Eadric artillery battalions. Raul initiated the targeting sequence while VJ maneuvered the Rho Ship for the firing pass.

“Enemy targeting sensors are attempting to acquire us.”

Raul tensed but maintained his focus. “Stay on target.”

He felt the Rho Ship’s targeting solution lock in and fired a pattern of disrupter blasts, his efforts rewarded by a half dozen secondary explosions that sent fireballs boiling into the sky. Not a perfect run, but it would have to do.

“Get us out of here.”

“Subspace transition initiated,” VJ said.

There it was again, a jitter as the subspace field generator activated, this one much more pronounced than the last time. The neural net gave Raul the bad news. The subspace transition had failed.

“Enemy targeting sensors have acquired a lock on us.”

Despite the fact that she was a simulation, Raul heard the tension in her voice. Apparently the imminent threat of being blown out of the sky could do that. Fear sharpened his mind’s connection with the neural net, and he issued the command to activate the vessel’s stasis shield mere nanoseconds before the Rho Ship’s exterior lit up brighter than the sun as a combination of disrupter blasts and laser beams played across the hull.

The relief that flooded Raul’s mind that he was still alive was short lived. The stasis shield was holding, but the stress the attacks were placing on its generator were already approaching the red line. He worked to compensate, felt VJ activate the Rho Ship’s cloaking mechanism, then performed a hard banking maneuver that carried them out of the line of fire.

As expected, the Eadric air-defense systems began firing a spread pattern, hoping to get a lucky hit on the target that had just disappeared from their sensor screens.

“Can you get us into subspace?” Raul asked.

“Negative.”

“Then find us a safe spot on the ground.”

“Working on it,” said VJ.

A laser beam sizzled into their shielding with such intensity that Raul could feel the stasis field generator overheat.

“Shit. Get us on the ground.”

The fact that VJ didn’t respond told him more than he wanted to know about the number of ship’s systems that were failing. The neural net transmitted the ship’s status directly into his pain receptors, a sensation that was getting less pleasant by the moment.

VJ entered the new course command, sending the Rho Ship plummeting from the sky into a deep canyon far behind the Eadric lines. The maneuver didn’t startle Raul, but the destination coordinates did.

“Oh shit!”

Wrapped in the command deck’s stasis field, Raul braced for impact, praying that the ship’s shielding would hold. As he studied the cascading status displays that blossomed in his mind, he gulped in a deep breath. He hoped it wouldn’t be his last.

***

Kasari Group Commander Shalegha stood as tall as any of the Koranthians, her four powerful arms as familiar with battle as her mind was with strategy and tactics. But the subterranean warrior race had earned her respect. Much as she would have liked to assimilate them into the Kasari Collective, their brains had an odd structure that prevented the cortical nanobots within the Kasari nanite serum from linking their brains to the hive-mind, the first such intelligent species that the Kasari had ever encountered. Unfortunately, they would have to be exterminated.

Suddenly Shalegha was alerted to the tactical display that her nanobot cortical array delivered to her visual cortex. She took particular note of one signal concerning a subspace transition within the caverns controlled by the Koranthian general, Dgarra.

Although the Kasari did not have Altreian subspace technology, they could detect whenever Altreian ships transitioned in and out of subspace if that happened in close proximity to active Kasari sensors. Whenever an object transitioned into subspace, it left a brief hole in normal-space. When that hole refilled, a distinctive electromagnetic signature propagated outward. The reverse happened when an object emerged from subspace into normal-space, also creating a detectable signal.

The Eadric air-defense sensors clustered along the northern Koranthian front had noted several subspace anomalies just before the deadly Koranthian winter had made further assaults impossible. The odd thing was that they hadn’t detected any similar disturbances during the intervening months. That, combined with the encrypted message Shalegha had recently received from her source within the Koranthian High Command, gave extra importance to this new signal.

It meant that the humans had not only managed to capture a Kasari world ship but had also somehow managed to enhance it with subspace capabilities. That could only mean that they were getting help from the Altreians, thus making the capture or destruction of that world ship one of Shalegha’s top priorities.

She ran her upper right hand through her short-cropped orange hair and issued a mental command that placed all air-defense systems along the northern Koranthian front on high alert, as well as those that surrounded her headquarters in the Eadric capital city of Orthei. As much as Shalegha trusted her connection to the hive-mind and the enhanced permissions that she enjoyed on that network, she trusted her battle-honed instincts more.

Something big was about to happen, and it just might be precisely what she had been hoping for.

***

General Dgarra felt the shock waves from the fireballs that rolled above the battlefield as the cigar-shaped Rho Ship flashed across the sky, creating a sudden, eerie pause in the Eadric assault. Apparently Raul had launched an attack on the distant enemy artillery. The action was foolhardy but still could provide the window of opportunity that Dgarra’s beleaguered warriors so desperately needed.

As he watched, the Eadric antiaircraft batteries opened fire, bathing the ship in brilliant explosions. Dgarra didn’t understand. Why hadn’t Raul shifted the vessel back into subspace by now? Surely the starship’s shielding couldn’t withstand such a battering for much longer. His conviction that something was seriously wrong grew stronger with each passing moment.

When the Rho Ship disappeared, Dgarra breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, that feeling didn’t last long. The batteries of lasers and disrupter weapons adjusted their firing into a spread pattern designed to seek out and destroy a hidden target. The Eadric believed that the Rho Ship had cloaked itself and remained in the area.

A burst of bright light sizzled against an invisible shield, a lucky strike that attracted a heavy concentration of fire. But as the firing continued, there were no signs of another direct hit, giving Dgarra hope that Raul had finally escaped into subspace. He shifted his attention back to the battle at hand, issuing the command that dropped the stasis shields that protected all of the Koranthian disrupter and laser batteries, directing his artillery to concentrate their fire on the gathered Eadric brigades that threatened to breach his lines.

As he had hoped, the answering artillery fire was greatly diminished from what his forces had experienced before the Rho Ship’s attack. Now, robbed of the bulk of their artillery support, the Eadric assault faltered. With a word, Dgarra committed his combat reserve, a burst of pride swelling his breast as he watched fresh Koranthian warriors pour from their caverns to sweep the exhausted Eadric assault troopers from their positions. Dgarra ordered his artillery to shift their firing farther behind the enemy lines to avoid killing his own warriors.

He felt someone step up beside him and turned to see Smythe standing there, her black and purple uniform crusted with the dried blood that had also plastered her short-cropped brown hair to her skull. Despite her appearance, Smythe’s eyes were alert as she peered at the battlefield displays projected on the command center’s far wall. Her return was a small thing, but at the end of this long day, one more thing to be thankful for.

“When you fell during the battle,” he said, “I feared that I had lost you.”

Smythe turned toward him, a slow smile spreading across her human features. “I take it that Raul’s attack succeeded.”

“You ordered that action without consulting me.”

Smythe’s shoulders lifted slightly in one of her odd human expressions. “I can’t order Raul to do anything. I merely requested the air support, and he agreed.”

“It could cost us the Rho Ship.”

“If the Kasari and their allies were to overrun your position, the ship wouldn’t matter. Since I wasn’t able to communicate with you, it seemed a worthwhile risk.”

General Dgarra stared down at this impressive human female. In certain ways she reminded him of his younger self: idealistic, aggressive, and utterly fearless. Time and again she had proven herself worthy of his trust, worthy of the risks he’d taken for her. Not only had she saved his life, but she had also delivered on her promises to instruct Dgarra’s engineers in alien technologies.

But trust was the least of what he had come to feel for her.

Even now, the general did not fully understand his emotions. He just knew that he felt better in her presence, and whenever Jennifer was apart from him, an emptiness ate away at his soul.

Despite his best efforts to hide these feelings, he could see in her eyes that she knew.

And maybe he was imagining things, but she seemed to return his fondness.

He had never met a potential mate with this combination of attributes. The fact that he now found himself attracted to this strange alien female went far beyond odd and was utterly incongruous with his upbringing. The very idea of weakening the Koranthian bloodline, assuming that interbreeding was even possible with a human female, amounted to high treason. In every instance where a Koranthian had mated with another race, the sentence had been the same: death by cleansing fire.

Purging these thoughts from his mind, Dgarra turned his attention back to the Rho Ship.

“What is Raul’s status?” he asked.

“Give me a moment.”

Smythe removed the iridescent headband from her cargo pocket and placed it on her head. After several moments of concentration, she frowned and returned it to her pocket.

“I’m not getting a connection.”

“What would cause that?”

“If he made a wormhole jump, it might have taken him out of this headset’s range.”

Dgarra had come to recognize the look on Jennifer’s face whenever she doubted her words.

“And if that is not the case?”

Her eyes narrowed and locked with his. And in that look, he detected a deep, contagious dread.

“Then Raul’s gamble may not have paid off.”

Kasari Nexus Kindle Monthly Deal June 30, 2016

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Hello, fans. I’m happy to say that The Kasari Nexus is the July 2016 Kindle Monthly Deal. Enjoy.
Richard

Kindle Daily Deal June 28, 2016

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Once Dead, Dead Wrong, and Dead Shift are today’s kindle daily deal 06-28-16.

Dr Stephenson’s Ether Theory June 13, 2016

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Just a short note to let you know about a short but interesting book I just finished that is a variation on Dr. Donald R. Stephenson’s Ether Theory from my Rho Agenda and Rho Agenda Assimilation novels.  It’s a non technical but fun read. The book is called Why Theory by Robert Kaufman.

Beta Reader Signup for The Altreian Enigma April 6, 2016

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This is the last chance to sign up to be a Beta Reader for The Altreian Enigma. If you want to participate I need the following:

  1. Add my email ( richard.phillips@secondship.net ) to your Amazon account’s Approved Document Senders List
  2. Email me ( richard.phillips@secondship.net ) with your Kindle’s email address ( something@kindle.com )
  3. I also ask that you only share the beta copy with your immediate family. This is only a rough draft.
All the best,
Richard

Kasari Map of Planet Scion April 6, 2016

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Here is the Kasari Tactical Map of Planet Scion from The Kasari Nexus.

Phillips-The-Kasari-Nexus-IN-DP-FINAL

The Kasari Nexus Release April 4, 2016

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I am happy to let you know that the release of The Kasari Nexus is tomorrow, 4/5/2016.

Kasari Nexus Audible Book Available March 29, 2016

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The Kasari Nexus Audible Book is now available for purchase and download. Enjoy. Richard Phillips